In Times Long Past…

In the afterword to Nicola Griffith’s new novella, Spear, she runs down the lists of source material and permutations around the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Or, more precisely, those around Percival, who in many tellings is the more important figure. The king is all very fine, of course, but it was Percival who found the Grail. In some versions, it is Percival who returns Excalibur to the Lake. In still others…

The point being that such stories, myths and legends, are all repurposed tales that meet multiple needs and adapt to the times in which they are (re)told. Tracing them to a single point of origin is not only virtually impossible, but is irrelevant. The purpose of myth is reification.

Among others. But on that point, reification is always tied to the present. Which lends myth its ever-ancient timelessness and relevance.

Which is always one of the fascinating things about it, that timeless-timely utility.

It’s also what makes a good retelling immediately exciting and accessible.

Most (if not all) myths begin in some version of “A hero will be born.” The story then is “from where” “to whom” and “then what?” Perseus is emblematic, and possibly the most visible in significance. The Greeks may not have begun the genre, but they certainly perfected it, and for a long time pretty much owned it. All the Great Heroes of the Aegean and Adriatic region have remarkable beginnings. Often a cave is involved. Some education in the wilderness. Then the confrontation that defines their purpose. They are, essentially, Of Nature, since everything about them is from Outside, “inside” being more or less whatever passed for civilization. (For our purposes, the primal exemplar of this outsider could be Enkidu from the Gilgamesh story.)

The utility of myth cycles is in their adaptability. Repurposing a story to reveal, reify, revise, or otherwise reestablish the scope of meaning is what gives them power across time. The nature of the actors can change, roles might be swapped around, identities modified or even completely recast.

And in some instances, the central hero is changed. Focus moves from one to another, giving us a shift in perspective, a realignment. Something new, something not considered before. And yet, the story remains essentially the same, at least in regards to the events and the goals.

The Arthurian cycle is endlessly adaptable this way. Who is the hero? Arthur? Merlin? Lancelot? Guinevere?

Percival?

All of them, depending on which example you look at, fit the role of Outsider. But the one that is most ideally crafted for that part is Percival.

In Spear, Nicola Griffith gives us a Percival who is perfectly outside. In this iteration, she is Peretur, of “mixed” parentage, raised in the essential cave, schooled by a wise adept, nurtured to become the hero the world needs.

She comes of age, chooses a path, and sets forth from the hidden place of her childhood to journey to Arturus’s court at Caer Leon to join the circle of Companions to the king. She decides, chooses, does battle, grows confident…

This is a hero to cheer for. Her first victory is in learning her true name. Her next is establishing for herself what she is. And then making a place for herself in the world. A place of her choosing.

Quest is also a major element of most myths. Going, struggling to find, fulfilling vows, remaking the world along the way. In this new retelling of this story, there is a quest, though it is not what most of the participants believe it to be. In this way, Griffith shows how the defining character of the goal is not a specific thing but a fulfillment of purpose, and grail at the end is self-knowledge.

Spear is marvelous reworking of the Arthurian tale. The components are given different origins, different explanations, the settings are deftly placed in what we know of the “real” world, and the nature of what may have been the place and people from which the cycle emerged are treated with the kind of demythologizing care of the historian. There is a texture to this, a fabric of authenticity that gives entree to the world. In the end, such reassessments only add to the power and charm of the story. In so doing, Griffith offers us a variation that reifies overlooked or hidden aspects of what makes the legend important. For us.

Along the way, she gives us a damn good adventure.

In the afterword, there is a tantalizing discussion of sources, variations, and a brief history of the cycles over time. It establishes the long practice of repurposing of which Spear is only the newest example. Which is all well and good, but the best thing about this one is that is opens the possibilities of the story to offer meaning to a wider audience. It is not a tale aimed at Just These People, but for many more not usually considered. Griffith discusses that as well.

Spear is a successful recasting. Even the nature of the Quest at the heart of centuries of Grail stories is given a new raison detre, bringing is from the cosmic to the personal in a touching reveal utterly consistent with Griffith’s purposes and the traditions of the story cycle.

All this aside, it is first and foremost a thoroughly delightful and satisfying work.

Visceral Coding

Few things generate sustained anxiety as much as genetic engineering. Both positive and negative, for the possibilities and the dread. Since Watson and Crick revealed the double helix of DNA, the science has proceeded apace, and we now live in an era wherein “programming” can refer to both computers and our genes.

Jennifer Doudna is a name to conjour with in this transformational time. In 2020 she won the Nobel Prize with Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on CRISPR cas9. CRISPR has become the label in media stories for a process of “editing” genes with the use of a form of RNA. (Almost no one outside the biochemistry and medical community seems to no what it stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspersed Short Palindromic Repeaters.) Basically minute segments of code in a strand of RNA that repeat and can be used to, effectively, insert modified segments of code into a gene sequence.

What began as “pure” research into the methods by which bacteria defend against viruses became a revolutionary method of dealing with all manner of genetic circumstances, including potential treatments and vaccines for the most recent scourge, COVID-19.

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Doudna (pronounced DOWD-na), Code Breaker, is also a history of the sometimes chaotic, sometimes life-affirming, often unexpected world of scientific research and its interface with the rest of the world.

Isaacson has given us not only a biography of a remarkable individual, but a look at the often surprising world of research and development. The image of the scientist, austere and removed, still to some extent dominates our imagination. It comes as a surprise (and occasionally something of a betrayal) when we are forced to recognize that scientists are human, just like the rest of us, with all the flaws and foibles to which “ordinary” people are prone. One aspect of the public conception of The Scientist I think requires adjustment is the fact that scientists continue to grow, to mature, to evolve. Too often, it seems that once the Ph.D. is earned, the scientist becomes a static icon, unchanging, and is expected to Know All or at least is frozen into an unchanging assemblage of stereotypes. On some level, this seems to offer comfort—one of the things people tend to be bothered by is an admission of not knowing. Worse still, is a change of mind, which is inevitable in the light of new evidence. But ordinary people can do both. A scientist is not supposed to.

This has led to unrealistic expectations, loss of trust, and the unfortunate “gaming” of science (never mind truth) in public policy. Primarily, this is from a profound lack of understanding on the part of the public. For another, it emerges from the misuse of science as a political talking-point.

Isaacson does an excellent job of taking the reader through the various aspects of a discovery, its initial reception, its development, its transition from pure research to useful tool, and the social and political impact along the way. And along with this, he explains just what that science is.

Jennifer Doudna is central to the unraveling of genetic codes and the inner workings of the templates of life. Basically, she became a nexus for many strands of research, each adding to the overall picture. Her work with French scientist Emmanuelle Charpentier ultimately earned them a shared Nobel Prize.

What they have developed is a tool by which the template for biological forms can be modified. Edited. This offers the possibility eventually of correcting genetic “errors’ that produce diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and many others. The drive to “decode” the human genome contained the hope and ambition to one day be able to deal with these things, which are different from pathogenic illnesses. But even in the case of viral and bacterial infections, the ability to address illnesses from at a genetic level offers exciting possibilities—and in fact has been vital to the handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The speed and facility with which the scientific and health community have been able to respond is in important ways attributable to Jennifer Doudna’s work.

There is drama, intrigue, fascinating people, and the makings of a good thriller in certain aspects of this story. But the most important thing is the profound humanization of a complex community and the people in and from it. Scientists are not fundamentally different from anyone else. Their interests may seem esoteric and the degree of concentration they bring to their passions may seem other-worldly at times, but in truth what they have is a deeply useless set of tools and the willingness to abide by the rules those tools require for sound use. What must be understood, and often is obscured by the dizzying aspects of the science itself, is their humanity and how they represent, often, the best possibilities of all of us. (Of course there are those who are not as good at what they do as they should be, those who are more concerned with fame or wealth than the work itself, those who are flawed in unfortunate ways—just like any other group of people in any other area of activity—but we should look to the best for our examples and not allow the worst to color our perceptions of the people doing amazing work.)

Finally, understanding something is the best way to stop being afraid of it. At the end of the day, that is the real gift scientists give us—they work to understand things previously hidden and unknown and thereby help the rest of us to stop being afraid.

Bridges, Circles, the Pleasure of Continuing On

As I’ve gotten older, my reading has taken turns I would never have expected. My preferred genre is science fiction, and yet I find the number of SF books I read per year shrinking. Perhaps I’m getting more selective—and it is getting more difficult to choose, what with the wealth of new possibilities—but the total number of books I read per year has not shrunk much. 

I’ve been reading more nonfiction. (I’m a writer, I have to do a certain amount of investigation of the world, of history, of science, so…) But also my consumption of mysteries has increased.

In particular, mystery series.

Decades ago, I would have been working through science fiction series. I cut my teeth on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom, Doc Smith’s Lensmen, Asimov’s Foundation novels, the Dorsai, Pern, even L. Sprague DeCamp’s Krishna books. But then I limited it to trilogies and finally, over the past couple of decades, my preference has been for stand-alones in science fiction. I love the field no less than ever, but I don’t have the patience for series anymore.

Mysteries are another matter. In the last couple of decades I have found myself waiting for the next novel in any number of mystery series. Nero Wolfe started it. As a teenager, I was not so interested in sticking with them, but I had read a few. Recently…

Among my favorites are Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels; Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisy Dobbs; Kerry Greenwood’s Miss Fisher; Martin Walker’s Chief Bruno; a handful of others.

Especially Christopher Fowler’s marvelous Bryant & May series.

As eclectic goes, these are difficult to beat, and as each novel arrives, it seems more and more that Fowler has an end game in mind.

Arthur Bryant and John May are the oldest still-working detectives in the London police system. They should long since have retired, but you realize quickly that they simply have nothing else to do. May, the more grounded of the pair, has pretty much run through what passes for a normal life, and has not been particularly successful at it. Bryant is anything but ordinary and has a dedication to his city that amazes and mystifies those with whom he works. He is a historian, an out-of-box thinker, tenacious, eccentric, and genuinely cares nothing for what other people think of him.

They are the chief detectives in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, an oddball division set up during World War II with a strange remit that lands them in cases that sometimes border on the occult, sometimes conspiracy, sometimes have roots going back centuries.

And the regular police department—the Met—and forces in the Home Office want very much to see them gone. They are unclassifiable. They are occasionally an embarrassment. What keeps them open is a combination of Bryant’s (unnamed) connections in government and their well-above-average success rate.

Bryant and May are circling around 80 and you know this can’t go on much longer, but with each novel their reprieve—for their careers, for the odd assemblage of people who make up the rest of the Unit, for the sheer pleasure of seeing the Suits at Whitehall thwarted—gives another chance to take us through a London by way of criminal investigation not to be found in any other series of which I am aware.

Rabbits are regularly pulled out of aging hats by the end of the novels to lead to one more bizarre outing. The byplay between the partners is delightful, Bryant’s network of informants are among the strangest and most diverse to be found, there is humor, weirdness, and the villains are always unexpected. 

The new one, London Bridge Is Falling Down, opens up a new level in the history of the Unit itself and offers a set of resolutions I did not expect. The remit so often mentioned throughout the series gets a new look and the revelations are more than satisfying. Fowler shows us an aspect of the aftershocks of the War that we have come to expect but in ways that make it fresh and with consequences for the characters that are surprising and terrible. The long story of the Unit is on display, the roots and branches are the target of the crimes, and the resolutions…

There is in this current volume a level of pathos long hinted at and now realized, a sense of inevitability that, while consistent with the  arc of the series, points up the power of fiction to draw us into relationships that genuinely matter.

Among the many pleasures of Bryant and May’s adventures is the pointed critique of bureaucracy, useless officials, and politics-at-the-expense-of-results which all plague our modern era. This should not be mistaken for a blanket condemnation of such systems, for a parallel consideration is how such systems remain necessary even to the rebels and outliers if they wish to be effective. Bryant’s constant complaining about the modern world is not about the basic idea of it but about the ham-fisted way in which so much of it manifests. He does not object to technology as such, only in its apparent ability to separate people from each other. He refuses to Google, preferring to find someone who knows something and talk to them. As lonely as he seems to be—as opposed to the more socially-adept May—he is the one insisting on the human connection, while his partner, who connects often, just as often fails at such connections.

Bryant solves cases obliquely, with apparent side-trips into historical cul-d-sacs and by ways regular police find pointless and, frankly, embarrassing. Among Bryant’s confidantes is a white witch, who manages to regularly point Arthur in a useful direction. 

May, on the other hand, who is fastidious, fashionable, and facile with the very modernizations that seem to frustrate his partner, is the one who grounds the Unit in the world of forms and protocols. He is a traditional cop. 

It is amazing the two of them get along at all.

But as with other long-running series, the heart of it is the friendship. They are partners. Time has joined them in ways neither understands or would wish to change.

London Bridge Is Falling Down takes them back to their early years in unexpected and tragic ways. Things done back then now come out in the open in ways neither could have foreseen. Following the trail of a hapless functionary who thinks he has found a way to extricate himself from the mess that his life has become leads from body to body and the only way to make sense of it all is to go back to the beginnings.

Fowler has brought us around a long circle through the series. One hopes it is not yet closed. Bryant and May ought really to live forever.

Out of the Mists

The common assumption put forward by several decades of anthropology and associated fields concerning that vast fog known as Prehistory runs as follows: humans, after emerging from the crapshoot of evolution, roved the savannah in small bands, gathering and hunting and painfully inching their way toward a point where they began to make tools (other than spear points and such). Then came a long period of migration, scattered attempts at settlement, until, a critical population mass achieved, agriculture was developed, and very quickly came the abandonment of hunter-gatherer society, leading to regular towns, art, and gradually more impressive engineering feats to serve the expanding agro-economy. At some further point, all this became the foundation of nascent states, after which the whole thing rolled into the “historic” era (marked by the advent of record-keeping) and kings and empires and slavery, and so forth.

This is more or less the way it was presented to me back in school, and, I suspect, still pretty much the popular conception of prehistory.

The problem with this is that we are talking about roughly 200,000 years of that undifferentiated, featureless, unchanging landscape. Taken at face value, it says that human beings conducted themselves as essentially immutably “innocent” creatures, either incapable or uninterested in doing anything more with themselves or their environment until they learned to plow a field and write things down. If, as the evidence suggests, modern homo sapiens had been roaming around the planet for two hundred millennia, with all that “modern” implies, this begs the question of what “we” were doing all that time and why, all of a sudden, about 10,000 years ago, we started living entirely differently.

Put that way, there is no reasonable answer. It is on its face an absurd assumption.

One that is not supported by any of the evidence we actually have.

So why cling to the narrative?

In The Dawn Of Everything: A New History Of Humanity, authors David Graeber and David Wengrow explore exactly that question and in so doing turn over multiple apple carts, debunk many myths, and shake up the common assumptions about that vast and murky period. They begin with a look at Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the question of equality.

When we first embarked on this book, our intention was to seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality. It didn’t take long before we realized this simply wasn’t a very good approach. Framing human history in this way—which necessarily means assuming humanity once existed in an idyllic state, and that a specific point can be identified at which everything started to go wrong—made it almost impossible to ask any of the questions we felt were were genuinely interesting.

They proceed then to reexamine as many assumptions as possible with the space of reasonably-sized book to show that Rousseau’s apparent point in his Discourse On The Origins Of Inequality is a bit of a cheat—unless Rousseau was being absurd to a purpose. For instance, Graeber and Wengrow remind us (assuming we ever knew) that the so-called “indigenous critique” of European civilization that informed much of Enlightenment thinking was not an invention of the philosophes but a genuine critique delivered by Native Americans after they had witnessed firsthand European civilization (often as captives/slaves, sometimes a diplomats). The sources were credited by the philosophes themselves as being from Native Americans, but later historians chose to ignore this to the point where it was forgotten and the natives were relegated to that pool of prehistoric humanity too “simple” to understand complex culture and socio-political structures.

From that point on, Graeber and Wengrow take nothing at face value and conduct a thorough reevaluation. If human beings have been phsyiologically “modern” for 200,000 years, it is ridiculous to assume they did not conduct themselves with as much sophistication and complexity as we do. Often, as it turns out, with strikingly different results.

The scope of the book is global. Between them, they cover archaeological finds from Central America to Turkey to Japan and points in between and carefully examine what is thee to be seen and what it means in relation to our understanding of how communities function. It is an eye-opening tour.

Much here is speculative. What makes prehistory difficult is the lack of, well, history. Written history. All we have are the remnants. But with a clear eye, those remnants are quite expressive. One thing that emerges consistently is that our previous assumptions are wrong.

From the end of the last ice age till now, we have enough to trace humanity’s presence and draw conclusions about its progress. But for the most part we still cling to the simplistic story of “primitive” societies living subsistence existences until the point where it become possible to form what subsequently became great states—Egypt, Babylon, Rome, the Indus Cultures. The implication being that once we reached that level we never looked back and marched forward into the present building roughly the same kinds of civilizations. And that at some point we collectively began to realize that we had become in thrall to despotisms and began what we know as the battle for equality. We seldom question the progression.

But, Graeber and Wengrow ask, why don’t we question it? Because even within historic times, it just isn’t the case, at least not universally.

If anything is clear by now it’s this. Where we once assumed ‘civilization’ and ‘state’ to be conjoined entities that came down to us as a historical package (take it or leave it forever), what history now demonstrates is that these terms actually refer to complex amalgams of elements which have entirely different origins and which are currently in the process of drifting apart. Seen this way, to rethink the basic premises of social evolution is to rethink the very idea of politics itself.

What is revealed by their analysis is that the smooth trajectory of assumed historical progress is an oversimplified, biased gloss from too few perspectives. The reality—that which can be demonstrated with evidence and that which can then be surmised by constructive deduction—is far more complicated, complex, and frankly compelling. Part of the telos of those simplistic constructions is that all that has gone before inevitably led to now—to us. We are as we must be by decree of historic processes which are inevitable.

The truth is, what we are now is only one possibility of what we might have become.

And this is the meat and bone of Graeber and Wengrow’s argument—that to justify ourselves as we are it is better to paint the ancient past as a homogenous, almost featureless whole. Had people twenty, thirty, or fifty thousand years ago not been the pastoral simpletons we’ve presented them to be, then where are the great kingdoms and empires, the technologies, the earthworks, the cities that would mark them as complex thinkers? While to a certain extent that is a not unimportant question, it overlooks examples that have left traces, even up to the present period, that fail to fit the expectations engendered by such a view. The decay of time certainly has something to do with the paucity of physical evidence, but what we do have is not so insignificant that the standard narrative has any claim to remain unchallenged.

While a good portion of The Dawn Of Everything is speculative, enough evidence and solid analysis is presented to more than justify such speculations, at the very least insofar as a challenge to our assumptions and a reconsideration of modern expectations. Quite a bit of non-Western critique was suppressed or ignored to help in building a picture of the past that supported the hegemony of the West’s self-importance. (Quite a lot of what became the political revolution of United States came from indigenous sources, accepted wholesale by the philosophes and then subsequently forgotten. The thinking was sophisticated, philosophically trenchant, and necessary to challenge what had become a standard view of the West’s view of itself.)

David Graeber passed away in 2020, at the age of 59. More volumes were to follow this one, according to his collaborator David Wengrow. One assumes many of the critiques that will inevitably emerge regarding this first book would be addressed in those books that follow—for instance, this—because clearly there was insufficient room in one volume to cover all the material avbailable. We may see more, but what they produced here is one of those books designed to upset apple carts. There is no inevitability in history, tempting though such narratives are. In order to free ourselves of the chains of a presumed inevitable present, we must go back and reexamine the past and find those “missing” parts that demonstrate the possibilities and the promises of other roads. This is what we have in this book.

Scandal In Romania

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Nick and Nora Charles, Charles and Kate Sheridan, and in one unexpected offering Clark Gable and Carole Lombard—all have one thing in common: they are all detective marriages. Husband and wife teams, solving crimes, bringing their own domestic wrinkles to the task. Agatha Christie even wrote one, Tommy & Tuppence, as did Elizabeth Peters. The couple that solves crime together is more common than might first be suspected. And all of them have the unexpected about them, aspects of their relationship that would seem to make it unlikely, unstable, or unmanageable. And yet, they work.

The hallmark of these couples, of course, is the combined ability to solve murders, but that is only an aspect of what may be the chief attraction—for them and for the reader. Along with all the other (presumed) pleasures of the relationship, the intellectual rises to the top as an aspect of love. Unspoken though it may be in many instances, these are people drawn to each other by their shared appreciation for thinking.

And acting on the results.

Odd as many of them may seem, perhaps the least likely is the marriage of a young Mary Russell to her mentor/colleague, Sherlock Holmes.

When I encountered the first volume of Laurie R. King’s series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I read the description and thought: And just how does that work? Sherlock Holmes is the most dedicated bachelor in detective fiction. Many writers have attempted to explain that, even work on the assumed “romance” between Holmes and Irene Adler, and have mined the subtext of his condition for decades, sometimes to good effect.

But married?

In a display of elegant reimagining, solid logic, and excellent prose, King convinces us that her version of the Holmes Story is the true tale underlying the gloss of fiction created by Dr. Watson. In the first twenty pages a new reality is established, making these novels feel more like revealed history than fanciful speculations. As it has turned out, she established a premise that has resulted in 18 novels (give or take) and some shorter works, each one adding to the Holmes mythos and providing terrific entertainment along the way.

The series proceeds chronologically and follows history closely. From time to time we have the added pleasure of seeing a fictional character enter the story as if part of actual history (the rescue of Kim, for example—yes, Kipling’s Kim) and the new one—Castle Shade—more or less continues in that vein.

Almost literally. After wrapping up a twisted affair in the Riviera, Holmes and Russell are summoned to Romania at the request of Queen Marie. They arrive at Castle Bran where they are presented with the problem (in the form of threats against the queen’s daughter) and tasked with finding those responsible.

We are in the thick of atmospheric evocations. Castle Bran is reputedly that castle—Dracula’s. The vampire haunts the novel. Both Russell and Holmes are grounded materialists, so obviously ghosts, devils, vampires and so forth are not the perpetrators. But they are tools.

Politics play a role—this is 1925 and Romania is slowly recovering from the shocks of World War I—as does folklore. Holmes and Russell must move carefully through a landscape fraught with the kind of peril born out of superstition and the frayed sensibilities of a people still trying to find their way into a new world without losing too much of the old.

King deftly portrays the country, the culture, the politics, and the history and moves her characters through this landscape on this most delicate quest. As in past novels, King displays a deep understanding of history, and her attention to detail is everything one would expect from a Sherlock Holmes novel.

But as I said, the pleasure of this novel and all the others in the series is in the dynamic between Russell and Holmes and it remains compelling and convincing. The biggest difference between Mary Russell and her husband is age and therefore experience, but they are intellectually matched and derive a significant part of their delight in each other from that fact.

King has humanized Holmes, perhaps more believably than most other attempts, which have generally focused on the uncommon intelligence and observational skills of the detective, so much so that many incarnations have rendered the character all but a machine. The original stories show a more rounded person, someone who it must be remembered could be extraordinarily kind. Whatever the reason—fascination with the exotic if nothing else—Holmes has been too often portrayed as some kind of intellectual freak. Conan Doyle, if he had any message beyond telling a good yarn, was that the chief distinction between Holmes and his fellow humans was his willingness to Pay Attention. Yet the message received seems to have been “thank heavens there’s only one of him, no one could be like that!” King has spent time in this series, it seems, undoing the various boxes into which Holmes has been placed. (There have been a number of stories presenting the idea that Holmes was, in fact, an alien, which explained his unique powers. Fun stories, to be sure, but again that trend of removing Holmes from the realm of the human.) King’s Holmes begins as someone who had fled London, tired of The Game, but who started his career much younger than the man in Dr. Watson’s tales (a nod perhaps to Aesop, who was said to have dressed as an old man in order to be taken seriously by those who would never accept wisdom from a young man?) and was interested in his bees, his solitude, and perhaps rejuvenating himself after near burn-out. The opportunity of training a protege in the form of a young girl who invades his quiet gives him a chance to…

Well, that would seem to be an ongoing journey, for both of them. Russell/Holmes is very much a spring-autumn romance—and there is romance, albeit understated and plausibly private (these are written in first-person by Mary)—but they have found each other as rough equals and by implication natural companions.

All that is well and good, but the best part of these novels is Mary herself, who is one of the finest sleuths to be found. Tough-minded, resilient, a scholar first, detective and occasionally reluctant spy, it is from her we learn all this, her voice that takes us through the adventures, and Holmes often takes a backseat to Mary’s navigation.

And the mysteries are fine. Just the sorts of unlikely, bizarre, exotic tangles one should expect from a Sherlock Holmes tale. But again, rendered in terms of human capacity and interest. In any event, so far each book has left me happily looking forward to the next. Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes have together reinvigorated what had come close to being overdone and overworked.

2020 and Reading for Purpose

In a year that felt more like some surreal historical melodrama that ought to be safely turned into a documentary rather than something to cling to the future like a belly-full of bad booze, what we read may have been one of the most important choices we were able to make. Our lives constrained by a pandemic, we may have lived more vicariously than ever before, but we also dealt with the world as a landscape of impending doom in ways that perhaps our parents and grandparents may have in different ways, but was unique in the manner of it collision with reality and ignorance.

I think it fair to say that never before has so much information, understanding, and intellectual resource been so available to so many and yet rejected in turn to such a degree as to challenge one’s sanity. It seemed like the more we knew, the more concrete things we could say about so many things, the more too many people flat-out denied those very things that might have made the world a better place. Watching and listening to the news day to day was an agony of frustration.

So we—some of us—turned to reading for answers as well as escape. Answers to try to make sense of things, escape to give us the spiritual resources to cope with what we learned and what we saw.

I read, cover to cover, 63 books in 2020.

What science fiction I read was related mainly to the reading group I host. I read a lot of history, political philosophy, mysteries. I did not quite finish a rather excellent biography of John Maynard Keynes, which has proven to be a timely work that throws light on the history that brought us to where we are now. Zachary Carter’s The Price of Peace should, I suggest, be read with Binyamin Appelbaum’s The Economists’ Hour. Between them they illuminate the 20th century struggle with finding our way through the morass of slogans, competing theories, political opportunists, and national identities that seem to rely on the 19th Century concepts of poverty, property, and progress to justify a kind of fearful reluctance to simply adapt.

Along with these, Shawn Otto’s The War On Science is history of the anti-intellectualism in America that has dogged us since the beginning and has resulted now in a precarious moment in which the knowledge we derive from sound scientific practice has never been more necessary to our survival while living in a time when more people refuse to acknowledge anything outside their own concepts and prejudices. Along with this, a somewhat more theoretical but complimentary work is Why Trust Science? by Naomi Oseskes.

It would seem that our greatest enemy remains ignorance. Demagogues and con artists have become far more adept at manipulating and defrauding us in greater numbers than ever before and the only defense is our ability to reason, to sort through and measure and recognize nonsense, especially when it seems enriching, empowering, and edifying. Everything has taken on an urgency that strips us of time and room to judge, to assess, to think through. Decisions must be made now, while the offer lasts, don’t be late, get yours now.

In this struggle, the only thing that we can personally do is equip ourselves with the wide gaze of grounded perspective. History, economics, philosophy. They can appear daunting. But you only have to pick a book and start. It accrues. In time, something seemingly so removed from our present experience as Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about King Phillip’s War, which set the pattern for the European conquest of America, takes on currency in the here and now. Speaking of Jill Lepore, her newest, If Then, about the forgotten Simulmatics Incorporated and its effect on American (and global) politics is an eye-opening expose of how we managed to corrupt our political systems with introduction of demographic analysis, ad-agency thinking, and datamining.

Economics, history…what about philosophy?

Outside specialized texts, I believe one cannot do better than good science fiction. Mary Robinette Kowal’s latest in her Lady Astronaut series, Relentless Moon, offers some surprising relevancy to the present as well as a terrific yarn set in an alternate history. Annalee Newitz’s Future of Another Timeline is a rumination on choice as well as a good time-travel story. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller examines near-future global changes and the consequences of corporate capitalism disguised cleverly as a quest/revenge/rescue narrative.

I’ve been reading aloud to my partner for a while now. We did John Scalzi’s most recent trilogy, starting with The Collapsing Empire. His approach is in some ways perhaps “irreverent” but once you get past that surface facility, it’s a first-class trilogy.

Possibly the most beautiful writing I encountered this year was Robert MacFarlane’s Underland. He’s a naturalist/explorer whose previous work has been concerned with climbing mountains and related landscapes. In this he went down. In a magnificent rumination on ecologies and the underground, both natural and artificial, he has written beautifully about a world we ignore to our peril.

Alex Ross, music critic for the New York Times, whose previous book The Rest Is Noise, about music and 20th Century history, is wonderful, has published his intricate study of Wager and the impact he had on, well, everything. Wagnerism in some senses is an expression of the often-unacknowledged influence of art on politics and identity. Ross examines how Wagner became the focal point for movements and countermovements up till the present with his outsized presence in film scores. An aspect of history that deserves a bit more attention.

I have my to-be-read pile already building for 2021. It includes several books that I hope will help me ride the unpredictable currents of our ongoing struggle with the world. But never more strongly do I feel that the encounter with other minds through the agency of the written word is one of our best tools for managing and emerging from darkness. We have such a wealth of resource. I look around at the world and cannot help but feel that if more people simply read more and more widely, things would begin to resolve. Never before have we had it thrown in our faces with such force the costs of ignorance.

Here is wishing you all a safe and aspirational year. Read on, read well.

The Relevance of Science Fiction

Kingsley Amis, in his book on science fiction, named Frederik Pohl as possibly the best practitioner of the craft. For some inside the field, it was a curious choice, but over time it has become difficult to deny. Pohl had one of the longest careers in SF, working at one time or another in just about every aspect of the genre—writer, agent, editor, certainly promoter. His novel Gateway is still one of the most memorable and poignant reads ever produced in the field and his work as editor of Galaxy and If brought many superb writers in.

He was also one of the great collaborators. He worked with Jack Williamson, Thomas T. Thomas, Isaac Asimov, Lester Del Rey. But perhaps his best collaborations were with Cyril Kornbluth.

Especially The Space Merchants.

Much has been written about the so-called “predictive” qualities of science fiction. Those familiar with the field weary of this. The whole point of science fiction is speculation based on what we currently know. The anticipation of technologies is not meant to be specific, even though the first magazine dedicated to it (Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing and Wonder Stories) quite explicitly intended to showcase gadgetry. By the time SF had grown into what we see today, this notion was viewed with chagrin and some impatience. Yes, spaceships are cool. Yes, mile-high buildings would be amazing. Yes, aliens and that they imply.

But the point is to set up a different arrangement of conditions based on the idea of social, technological, and material change and then see how this affects people.

So we open a novel like The Space Merchants and almost at once, from our perspective, find the gimickry of the setting amusing and/or embarrassing, because it was written in the 1950s and it shows. This is supposed to be about the 21st Century, after all. And what we find is something made up of parts of The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Brave New World, a touch of Captains Courageous, and The Manchurian Candidate. Advertising agencies run the world. It is an overpopulated planet, highly stratified, resources uncomfortably limited, with a propaganda machine run on brainwashing, narcotics, and a gleeful refusal to see anything wrong with any of it.

I will not here describe the plot, which is pretty much spy thriller-esque and moves the story along nicely. What matters here is the prediction. Not of the specifics of the scenario—that is exaggerated, pushed to an almost absurd extreme in service to the theme of the book, which is among those perhaps best characterized as in the “If This Goes On” variety.

Coming out of World War II, one of the underlying motivations informing politics and economics was a desire to make sure it never happened again. The world had beaten itself to a pulp. The political and social components of that disaster were much debated and quite naturally there was concern that it could happen again.

A number of things coincided to provide an apparent way through. First, the emergence of behavioral science, which sought to explain why people do what they do. Secondly, the joining of Madison Avenue advertising culture with politics (Eisenhower’s campaign was run by ad agencies while his opponent, Adlai Stevenson, rejected them out of hand). Thirdly, the apparent victory of capitalism as the solution to all material problems (thrown into stark contrast by a similar attempt at dominance by the soviet blocs). America came out of the war not only whole but in the de facto role of world savior.

To some extent, The Space Merchants is commentary on the embrace of capitalism as a kind of religion. That runs through the novel as a nerve-jangling given. The world built by ad agencies depends on the blind allegiance of consumers, which expresses itself in categorical denials of any other possible solution to what have, in the novel, become patently unmanageable global problems.

But not quite catastrophically unmanageable. It still seems to those in the upper layers to be fixable. Just push things a little more—for instance, by opening the planet Venus for colonization.

Reading it today creates a buzz of recognition. If one ignores the trappings of the scenario—the pedal-driven cabs, the “contract” marriages, the cheesy ad campaigns—one can see the lineaments of a future we have ourselves come to inhabit. The details are different but the essential gestalt is very much as Pohl and Kornbluth suggested it might be. Blind devotion to a capitalism that is more religion than tool, the easy acceptance of a class system that relegates people to poverty, the fervent belief that looming disasters are nothing of the kind and we don’t have to actually do anything about them.

Jill Lepore’s latest book, If Then, chronicles the rise in the Fifties of the factors which can easily be discerned in the background assumptions of The Space Merchants. The way in which, out of a desire to control the future and avoid ever having to deal with the kind of things that resulted in WWII, we have placed our hopes and energies in systems that have, frustratingly, become the stuff of 1950s cautionary tales. Looking out our collective windows, we see essentially the country, if not the world, run by Ad Men.

I do not wish to be too dire here. The resonances are far from one-to-one. But the work done in The Space Merchants suggests where the whole idea of predictive SF may come from. As always, it has little to do with the “stuff” and everything to do with people.

Hild, A World, A Novel

(This is a repost, done to correct  problem in the original)

 

It is completely fitting that science fiction writers should write historical fiction.  Both forms deal with the same background—alien worlds.

Because we live in a story-saturated era where access to the ages is easily had with a visit to the library, the local bookstore, the internet, movies, it is easy to assume we know—that we understand—the past, with the same cordial familiarity we experience our own personal history.  That people lived differently “back then” seems more a matter of fashion and technology, not a question of thought process or philosophy or world view.*  People lacked central heating and air conditioning, cars, television, telephones, indoor plumbing, antibiotics…but they lived essentially the same way.

Well, one could make a case that they did,  but you have to ask the question “In what ways did they live the same way?”  Therein lies the heart of good historical analysis and extrapolation.

Because while we can connect with people of the past in many very broad ways—they were human, they loved, they hated, they were greedy and generous, they were driven by passions, they dreamed—the specifics can school us in the range of the possible.  What does it mean to be human?

Far more than we might imagine.

But that’s where the novelist comes in, the writer who takes the time to grapple with those myriad distinctions and give us a look into those differences that are still, regardless of how remote they seem from our personal understanding of “human,”  part of who we are, at least potentially.

I mention science fiction at the beginning because at a certain level, if we’re dealing with something deeper than costume drama or plot-driven adventure fiction, the exercise of finding, comprehending, and actualizing on the page an entire period from the past—Republican Rome, Hellenic Greece, the Mesopotamia  of the Sumerians, the Kingdom of Chin, or post Roman England—is much the same as building a world out of logic and broad-based knowledgeable extrapolation.  In some instances, extrapolation is all-important because the fact is we simply do not know enough to more or less copy a record into a fictional setting.  Instead, we have to take the tantalizing scraps of what remain of that world and supply the connective tissue by imagining what must, what probably, what could have been there.  And in the process we discover a new world.

If done well, that newness becomes a mirror for us to perceive what we have overlooked in ourselves.  (Which is what good fiction ought to do anyway, but in the well-constructed historical it is a special kind of revelation.)

Seventh Century England is rich with the unknown, the ambiguous, the seductively out-of-reach.  It existed between one deceptively homogeneous era and another, between the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire.  More, it held some of the last vestiges of the once vast Celtic Empire.  It was a land where shadow-pasts vied for hegemony over the mythic substrate defining meaning for the warlords, petty kings, and mystics serving them. Pagan religions found themselves competing with this new Christianity, which had been around a while but was finally beginning to make significant headway among the competing kingdoms, looking for the leverage it needed to make itself an “official” religion with the authority to shove the others aside.

Into this came a woman who eventually mattered enough, given the overwhelming patriarchal structure of the day, to deserve a mention from the Venerable Bede (who saw women much as most men of his time did, necessary creatures in need of guidance and by dint of their sex lesser beings).  In Book 4 of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People we’re told of St. Hilda, who was by any measure of the era (and even ours) astonishing.  “Her prudence was so great…that even kings and princes asked and received her advice.”

A good novel starts with a good question and in this case it would be: Who was this woman and how did she get to this place?

A question to which Nicola Griffith impressively supplies an answer in her new novel, Hild, (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux).

Hild, later St. Hilda of Whitby, lived from 614 to 680.  She was a second daughter of minor nobility whose father died, leaving the family at the mercy of rival kingdoms.  Later she founded an abbey, where she remained the rest of her life, and was a teacher of prelates and princes.

Note that.  Seventh Century, at a time and in a place where women were little more than property, Hild could not only read but commanded respect.  That alone would make her fit subject for a big historical novel.  Certainly she would serve as the basis for a cathartic life-lesson to modern audiences about the innate power of women and the need to find and act upon one’s own identity.

But Griffith avoids this in some ways too easy path to sympathy for her character and does what superb history should—provides context and shows her character in situ, living as she would have.  Hild had her own problems to face and they are not ours.  Through the course of 560 pages of well-chosen and seemingly hand-polished words, Hild is given to us as a person, fully realized, of her own time.  This is a different world and these people did not see it as we do.

The success of a novel is in its ability to bring the reader entirely in and hold them, enmeshed, for the duration.  Griffith’s past novels have demonstrated that she can achieve this in both science fiction (Ammonite, Slow River) and noir thriller (The Blue Place, Stay, Always).  But in some ways those novels presented less of a challenge in their immersive requirements—they were closer to home, nearer to our own world, and allowed for reader assumptions to come into play.  (This is deceptive, of course, and is more a question of laziness on the part of the reader than on any artistic shortcuts a writer might take.)  Hild represents an order of magnitude greater risk on Griffith’s part, a kind of dance through a mine field of possible failures that could cause reader disconnect or, worse, a betrayal of her characters.  It is a great pleasure to note that she made no such missteps, got all the way to other side, world intact, with a character very much herself.

This is what historical fiction ought to do.  Take you and put you in a world that is quantitatively and qualitatively different and still engage your sympathies.  As we follow Hild from birth, through her education (under the guidance of her mother, who is herself remarkable) and into a young adulthood in which she comes into possession of some authority, we find ourselves shifting out of our comfort zones with respect to the givens of the world.

Hild is the first book of a trilogy, which will cover Hild’s whole life.  If the next two books are done with as much care, diligence, and grace as this, we are all in for a remarkable experience.

And out of the richly-wrought tapestry of difference, we really do find a connection across the centuries.  Just not where one might ordinarily look for one.

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*World view is itself a phrase fraught with change, for to have one requires we have some notion of The World, and that has changed constantly over time.  What world?  How big?  Who is in it?  Look at the changes in the past five centuries, which some historians identify as the modern era.  We have gone from a flat earth at the center of a solar system which defined the limits of space to an uneven sphere orbiting an insignificant middle range star of a small galaxy that is one out of billions and billions of galaxies, with no evident limit to what comprises the universe.

Resonance of the Modern Era: Erasmus, Luther, and the Common Apocalypse

One of the last books I read in 2019 is Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind.  An odd choice, perhaps, but I have my reasons.

At over 800 pages, the book is a thoroughly detailed dual biography as well as history of the period. Luther and Erasmus aside, the period itself is worthy of study because it is, arguably, the beginning of the modern era, if for no other reason than the fact that this was the time wherein the apparent monolithic edifice of Catholic Europe—The West—began to fragment into what we now regard as normal, with its proliferation of contending ideologies, both religious and secular, the rise of the nation-state, and first irreparable chink in the armor of divinely-sanctioned autocracy. During this time was not only the first explorations and colonies in the so-called New World, but also the first inarguable advances of science in the face of tradition, and the beginnings of new economic models that today power the enterprise of the planet. Between 1492 and the end of the 16th Century, the usual arrangements and assumptions changed, evolved, died, reformed, and transmogrified almost beyond recognition, leading to the Thirty Years War which pretty well ended everything that went before, even though certain forms persisted almost to the 19th Century (and a handful to the 20th).

It could be interesting to see what might have become of all that ferment without the two chief instigators of the tectonic shifts in intellectual and religious attitudes that were the driving forces behind it. Without Luther, the Church of Rome might have remained the single religious institution of Europe.  Without Erasmus, Luther might have remained a minor irritant in the body religious. And without the two of them, the various enclaves that sprang up to nurture the nascent philosophies and sciences of the period might have had nothing around which to cohere.

Both men began their careers as monks. Erasmus, however, was an intellectual, a lover of language and old books, who wanted an opportunity to visit other centers of intellectual ferment and do his own work. He managed to gain permission to leave his Augustinian cloister and travel. He studied in Paris, which he loathed because the environs were dirty, the food terrible, and his health never robust.

Wanting never again to be trapped inside a monastic life, he knew he had to make some kind of an income, and he took his first forays into writing and publishing.

Through his writings and his interest in primary texts and languages, he began the serious work of reassessing the Bible, which at that time was a dangerous idea. The Vulgate dominated Christian worship and while certain scholars within the Church understood that it was somewhat corrupted from its original incarnations, it had become wired into the complex system by centuries of use and tradition. What Erasmus’ instigated was a new undertaking that would change fundamental understandings of what the Bible actual said. We still do this today. It’s called Textual Criticism and it is a very rich field of essential linguistic archaeology. Not only what the words may actually mean, but also—and this was the dangerous part—who wrote them and when were they included.

Erasmus produced one of the first fresh translations from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts still extant and available and published them with extensive glosses explaining his methods and the provenance of what he had found. It is perhaps an understatement to say that this caused controversy.

As well, though, his work spurred the development of a new interest in ancient languages. Europe had already been subjected to the discovery of work thought lost, works by the Greeks and Romans. With the Spanish Reconquista, a flood of ancient works came over the Pyrenees and proliferated. Scholars had long been trying to make Aristotle and Plato conform to current Christian thought, and Aristotle had even been somewhat rehabilitated into a Good Pagan because his work proved so useful in scholastic pursuits. Now Erasmus demonstrated the utility of learning those languages in perhaps finding clearer meanings in Scripture, and whole new centers of learning coalesced. For the span of most of his life, Erasmus was a superstar academic.

Enter Luther, who early on discovered in Erasmus nourishment to feed his own questing urges. During the first part of his career, he was an ardent Erasmian and embraced the idea of studying Scripture through the lens of the languages in which it was written originally. His interest coincided with his desire to purge the Church of corruption, in this instance in the form of the Indulgence.

(An aside. The Indulgence, a device devised by the Roman Church to gather funds in exchange for, ostensibly, shortening or even bypassing time spent in Purgatory, was the match that lit the fuse of the Reformation, and yet I have had many conversations with Catholics who had no idea what they were and when explained to them thought it was ridiculous, even as one can still, I believe, buy one today. )

Many Germans felt the Indulgence was a scam of sorts, one perpetrated mainly on them by the Church. The salesmen were apparently overly aggressive in those territories. Luther was expressing a common perception when he railed against them.  He took it upon himself to challenge the Church. He had not been the first to challenge Church authority, especially Papal authority, but until him those who had managed to successfully raise such challenges to the point of creating movements for possible reform had all been arrested and put to death. Prior to Luther, the most prominent had been Jan Hus, whose memory still informed an underground pool of dissent in Bohemia.

What made Luther more dangerous was the sudden availability of the new translations by Erasmus and the very idea of returning to sources to find Biblical justifications for—

Well, for anything. Luther embraced the language studies with vigor, brought scholars to Wittenberg, and began his own forensic study of Scripture. At which point he began to question Papal authority for an entire slate of practices for which he could find no Biblical support.

What began then as a fairly simple protest against a kind of extortion quickly developed into a general movement against Papal overreach, pitting, essentially, the Bible against 1200 years of bureaucratic tradition. Luther quickly became the center of a storm that had been building for decades if not centuries and found himself unexpectedly at the head of a Reform Movement.

He wrote at a furious pace, an outpouring of opinion and preachment that did not slow for years. It was made more effective by a growing hometown printing industry that put just about everything it could get its hands on out in broadsheets, pamphlets, and books. It ceased being something that could be contained within the boundaries of the Church by the very public exposure the presses provided.

At this point it is impossible not to see the parallels to the present. The printers were the social media of their day. There were no libel or slander laws to speak of and there was no public filter other than the Church, whose historic method was silence.  What began as academic studies by Erasmus (and others in his mold) now exploded into highly politicized position statements demanding action.

Early in this, Luther and Erasmus held each other in mutual regard. Luther praised Erasmus for opening the field. He yearned for Erasmus’ support.

For his part, Erasmus wanted as little to do with overt reform as possible. He was aware of the physical dangers of too firm a statement. Erasmus hated being attacked while Luther relished it. Erasmus wanted to do his studies and be left alone while Luther wanted to slay dragons. The two men could not have been more different temperamentally, yet they were intellectually bound.

This did not last. Luther wanted allies. He wanted support. He had no use for fence-sitters. The longer Erasmus tried to remain above the fray, the less patience Luther had with him. The strains began to show.

The break came over the central tenet of Luther’s new gospel: grace. Luther decided that the only path to salvation was faith.  Works meant nothing. One could not work one’s way into God’s grace any more than one could buy into heaven. And people had no say in it whatsoever. They had to simply have faith and then hope.  Eventually, this position led him to dismiss the idea of free will, and on that Erasmus could not concur. The divide opened on that point and the rest of 16th Century history turned on to which camp who belonged.

Massing does a superb job of showing the consequences of all this on the ground, among the worst of which was the Peasant’s War, an early labor strike that turned into a general rebellion, and resulted in tens of thousands of dead.

Luther, as time passed, revealed himself as a ferociously impatient man who could not handle criticism or find common ground in debate.  Once he realized his power, he became less and less tolerant of differences. He hounded competitors into exile, browbeat his subordinates, castigated the authorities, and responded to attack with a vitriol that seems the opposite of “christian spirit.”  When the Peasant’s War erupted, he sided with the authorities and advocated in writing that all good Christians must, given the opportunity, kill those in rebellion.  He thought he could by sheer force of will impose his ideal state of Christian piety on the world.

But the revolution he began got away from him, as such things usually do. Others picked up his ideas, decided, often, that he was too lax, and imposed their own brand on the new breakaway movements, like John Calvin. As he grew older, there was a “Thank you, Herr Luther, for starting all this, but we’ll take it from here.”

Erasmus, for his part, tried desperately to maintain his independence in a world that was rapidly becoming partisan in the extreme. Popes and monarchs pressured him to take a stand on the question of Luther. He was a scholar, he argued, and he was afraid for his life.

Massing follows their paths and traces the results of their various interactions with religious leaders, their communities, and, from time to time, each other. The two men never met yet between them they set the parameters of the next four centuries of cultural realignment.

At the beginning of this I said that it was an odd choice but I have my reasons.  I was educated in a Lutheran primary school, from third to eighth grade. For a time I considered myself a Lutheran, but it didn’t last. One could say that I had a fey streak of Erasmian sentiment that eventually drew me into the academic side of religious study, which eventually eroded my loyalties and dissolved any investment I had in the subject. Luther’s adamant stand on faith alone I found unsupportable. But what initially drove a wedge between Lutheranism and me was the deep illogic and the social consequences of such a position.

What Massing’s book brings to light is the problem central to all the various sects of what came to be known as Protestantism in the 16th and 17th Centuries and lingers to this day as an inescapably innate requirement in so many of them—the need, the demand, not so much for faith, but for conformity.  John Calvin brought this to the issue as clearly as anyone and his strain of Protestantism informed so many later churches.  None of them could much abide what we now call diversity and certainly privately-held convictions and personal faith was suspect. In reaction to horrific revolts and purges that followed the advent of the New Gospel, the Catholic Church became just as conformist. And when Henry VIII assumed control of the Church of England, there was the same insistence on conformity.

Here, in the first couple of decades of what certainly was a necessary schism, we see the seeds of what grew into monsters of social constraint and intellectual rigidity.

And yet, Erasmus, with his insistence of learning and logic and the willingness to alter one’s ideas in the face of new information, began the other half of that revolution, the one that eventually produced the liberal West with its valuing of knowledge and education and its openness to the new.  The revolution that built a world wherein people could hold differing opinions and not be killed for them. Erasmus faded during the 16th Century, during the rise of the Protestant churches, but in the long run superseded the intolerance endemic to the reformers inspired by Luther. Because of Erasmus we have Galileo and Newton, Kant and Locke and Mill. It could be argued that because of Erasmus we have a civilization.

Despite their profound doctrinal differences, the two men shared many of the prejudices of their day—neither could tolerate the Jews and in Luther’s vitriolic attacks on them we can see the basis for the later horrors of antisemitism emergent in the German state.  Both also shared a conviction that things had to change. Erasmus wanted change from within the prevailing systems and remained a Roman Catholic all his life. Luther quickly came to believe change would only come by tearing things apart. Erasmus feared the results of such a tearing and he was validated by what happened when 1200 years of social continuity through the Church was broken. Like smashing a dam, a torrent of pent-up resentment, much of which had little to do with religion, made a desolation.

Ironically, Luther, watching it all unfold, railed against the anti-intellectualism he saw spreading.  It was all too resonant of what we have around us today.

To know where we are, we have to go back and see where we began.  This is a good place to start.

Cinema Versus ‘Theme Parks’

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema.  Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Martin Scorcese said that in an interview about Marvel superhero movies. The observation has sparked some controversy. A lot of people heard him trashing their favorite form of movie, others—including Francis Ford Coppola—found resonance with his statements.

The part of his statement I disagree with is the part that I hear every time someone from the literary world suggests science fiction is not “real” literature—because it doesn’t deal with humans experiencing authentic emotions in a meaningful context. In its own way, Mr. Scorcese has recast the classic dismissal of science fiction and fantasy in regards to film.

To which I would say, “Care to justify that in terms of cinema as a whole?” It can be argued, I think, that the gangster film on which Scorcese made his reputation is not a milieu about ordinary people having emotional experiences in common with their audience, but about a distinct subset of humanity that distorts itself into an extreme condition to pit itself against the world. Their experience are by definition, at least in cinema, going to be over-the-top, magnified, and at odds with the common. The backgrounds are likewise going to be exaggerated and often surreal, set-pieces to support encounters of violence and passions pared down by adrenaline to caricatures of ordinary daily experience. They “entertain” for precisely those factors that for two hours remove us from our mundane lives and give us entreé into lives we will (hopefully) never take part in. The point of them is to allow a vicarious experience completely out of the ordinary.

They are anchored to us by asking “How would we react in the same circumstances?” and honestly following the thread of answers to what connects these people to us.

But the characters themselves, while often despicable, are extraordinary.

As are the characters of the gunslinger, the private detective, the cop, the soldier, the knight, the barbarian, etc.

It is their extraordinariness that attracts us, holds our attention, and carries us along through unlikely adventures to, one hopes, a satisfying and cathartic conclusion.

How is that any different than what we see in Captain America? Iron Man? Thor?

Oh, they come from the worlds of science and fantasy and wield unusual abilities.

So, once again, because they appear to us in the context of science fictional settings and offer challenges outside historical experience, they are not legitimate cinema…

To an extent, Scorcese has a point. They do offer “theme park” rides. It takes a rather extraordinary film like Winter Soldier or, stepping to a different franchise, Wonder Woman to see the genuine human story beneath the glossy, glitzy, hyper-realized settings, but it’s there. And for those films that fail to deliver that human element, well, it’s not that they aren’t cinema, they’re just bad cinema.

But “cinema” has always indulged the exotic, the novel, the visually unique to achieve what may be argued to be its primary advantage as a medium. The full embrace of the exotic cannot be used to reclassify certain films as “not cinema” because they utilize exactly that potential.

No, this is another version of reaction to a genre distinction because you don’t get it.  It’s the reason several excellent SF films failed to find notice with the Academy for years because they were that “spacey kid stuff.” Now good SF is finally being recognized by the Academy, leaving the position of poorly-regarded declassé genre in need of a new resident, and in this instance Mssrs Scorcese and Coppola elect the big superhero franchises.

Let’s face it—there have always been superhero films. Dirty Harry is a species of superhero, as is Jason Bourne and James Bond. Chuck Norris and Steven Segal have made their share of superhero films. And when you think about it, just about any Western where the hero faces impossible odds and wins is a superhero film. One could go down the list and find just cause to name any number of historical or quasi-historical epics as members of that club. Robin Hood is a superhero. The Lone Gunman story is a species of superhero film. And these all draw from various mythologies that are readily accessible as superhero stories. Hercules, Cuchulain, Gilgamesh, Samson…

Of course these films are cinema. Just as science fiction is literature.

You just have to speak the language.