Dark Maiden Number One is now on Amazon Kindle

 
 
Going to promote this like crazy this morning. This comic is the first issue of a three issue limited series. The proceeds from this book will go entirely to getting myself and my wife to Battle of the Nations to fight for Team USA in Italy. Here is a link so those who aren’t familiar know what Battle of the Nations is… https://www.youtube.com/user/battleofthenations

Movie Review: Marjorie Prime

A most welcome trend of late has been the rise of the “art-house” science fiction film, and although such movies have been with us for a long time (nearly every French New Wave director made at least one science fiction film), the success of Shane Carruth’s Primer in 2004 has really spurred their production ever since. Typically, such movies are independently-made, often from outside the United States, and are aimed specifically at a usually older film-going demographic that prefers movies that take their time to reveal themselves and do so mostly through dialogue instead of action. Marjorie Prime is one of the best recent movies of this type, ably demonstrating the ability of genre cinema to craft stories as sophisticated and character-driven as its written equivalent.

In the near future, Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, makes use of an innovative technology to keep the memory of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm) alive, a hologram AI that replicates his physical likeness perfectly. But the “Prime” program requires that the user generate the hologram’s identity through mutual discussion, and with Marjorie’s memories and conversational skills disintegrating, Walter Prime’s remains incomplete. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) resents the intrusion of the holographic stranger into the family dynamic; as she laments, her mother treats the artificial intelligence better and with more compassion and respect than she did her own daughter, although she doesn’t seem to notice that she herself is replicating her mother’s possessive and insensitive behavior. Tess’s husband Jon (Tim Robbins) is more sympathetic towards her mother’s plight, and tries to assist in filling in for Walter the gaps that Marjorie can’t close. When Marjorie finally dies, Tess continues the cycle when she purchases a hologram of her mother (the “Marjorie Prime” of the title) to come to terms with both her grief and anger, a cycle that, it is clear, will continue down the family line.

Although based on a play, the movie shares some thematic affinities with Michael Almereyda’s earlier science fiction screenplays for Steve DeJarnatt’s cult item Cherry 2000 and Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. Like DeJarnatt’s film, it is about artificial simulacra being used by people unable to have the intimate relationships they yearn for, and it shares with the Wenders movie the premise of the invention of a sophisticated electronic recording format to preserve memories, in both instances it being our impressions of individuals and events and not their actual representation. In all three movies, a new technology designed specifically to cure loneliness and repair heartbreak instead has the unintended consequence of compelling its users to further isolate themselves emotionally from others. This also brings to mind some of Theodore Sturgeon’s most personal and heartfelt stories, such as “Slow Sculpture” and especially “When You Care, When You Love,” also about a woman trying to restore life to her deceased lover through replication technology (cloning, in this case). If the film’s themes are most reminiscent of Sturgeon, then the execution brings to mind Alfred Bester’s method of storytelling; many in the audience said afterwards they found the film’s strange dialogue patterns more puzzling or disconcerting than effective, although of course their effectiveness lies in precisely in the way they discomfit the viewer. The jagged dialogue exchanges between human characters and holograms is actually more reflective of how people actually talk in conversation than most movie dialogue, which is driven instead by our expectations of what constitutes an ideal conservation. The vocalized pauses and awkward exchanges suggest that our conversations with artificial intelligence will ultimately be not that much different than those with people nowadays…even those we love.

A movie such as this is driven not just by the dialogue itself but by its delivery, and fortunately the cast is for the most part more than up to the challenge. I was fortunate enough to catch a special screening where Lois Smith herself was in attendance, and she invests the role with the same thoughtfulness and sensitivity that has characterized her other work throughout her brilliant career. Just as Marjorie must take steps in recreate her husband fully, Smith reveals the character to us gradually and in bits and pieces, reflecting not just the slow loss of her own cognitive abilities but her active struggle to hold on to her own identity as well as her memories of others. Even though Smith has surprisingly little screen time, she nonetheless appropriately succeeds in leaving an indelible imprint and her character’s presence is felt even when absent; it’s no wonder there has been Oscar talk for her performance. Smith is ably supported by the excellent performances of both Geena Davis and especially Tim Robbins. In my review of Arrival, I mentioned my Whitaker-Robbins rule, which maintains that any science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can’t be any good. Twice now within this year, that law has been broken. Although Robbins gave the worst performances of his career in Howard the Duck and Mission to Mars, he gives one of his finest in this particular science fiction film, probably his best work since his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River. The sole weak performance is by Jon Hamm, who uses the same boring monotone delivery he used in The Congress. Although his mechanical performance may seem appropriate for the hologram Walter, he also throws in exaggerated facial expressions that are more annoying than effective, and it also doesn’t help that Hamm humanizes his delivery only slightly in flashbacks to the “real” Walter.

The movie has other flaws. Despite the relatively short running time, it moves quite slowly and feels longer than it actually is. Both the three-act structure and limited sets and locations make its stage origins obvious, and Almereyda’s direction doesn’t always help us to forget this. And as mentioned earlier, some people I have spoken to have said that the unusual dialogue patterns were too confusing and disconcerting, but I regard this not as a flaw but as a device to establish the film’s science fiction premise and credentials. There is very little visually to define this as a typical science fiction film, no futuristic sets  or obvious special effects, but as when reading a story in the genre, we pick up that it belongs to it by paying attention to what the characters say. Marjorie Prime is the type of movie more likely to appeal to science fiction readers than those fans who are primarily spectators.

The Last Jedi Fixes The Force Awakens

The Last Jedi fixes the problems with The Force Awakens and returns it to the hero’s journey. While there are parts of The Last Jedi that could and should have been cut out of the movie. The Poe Dameron comedy hour along with the entire Finn and Rose adventure did nothing to advance the plot and needed to be expunged. The movie was also too long. Other than these two problems the movie is not only worthy of the name Star Wars it returns us to the original vision which was the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell wrote his seminal work on that journey in 1949 with the publication of his book Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas has stated many times he used this as the template for Star Wars.
Heroesjourney.svgRian Johnson has fixed the scattered mess that had broken the journey in The Force Awakens and has firmly placed Rey back on the path. One of the criticisms of the movie is that Rey is a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character that can’t fail. The Mary Sue possesses knowledge and power that is unbeatable. This may have been true of the previous movie but Johnson has given us a character with flaws and fallibility. Rey constantly fails. She is not able to persuade Luke to return and lead the rebellion. She is unable to defeat Snoke, who treats her like an ineffectual rag doll (no Mary Sue would stand for that).  Her greatest failure was her inability to bring Ben back from the darkside or at least from the middle ground where he seems to thrive. It seems the complaint is really that Rey is a natural at fighting with the light saber and at using the force. The problem is that a hero is necessarily heroic and gifted with skills. Like all heroes who have taken the journey they must be special in some way. Gilgamesh has the strength of the gods, Odysseus was unnaturally cunning, Arthur had a magical connection with the land that made him King. Rey has the ability to become one with the force. It is all the same on the journey.

If we look at the hero’s journey Johnson has reset Rey and placed her back on the correct path to adventure. Rey answered the call to adventure in The Force Awakens and then sought out training from a Jedi Master (mentor). Luke has rendered his supernatural aid. The movie has her firmly facing the “threshold guardians”.  Snoke and Kylo Ren represent the guardians of power and knowledge. Defeating them and learning her heritage becomes a transforming event.  The movie ends with the rebellion shattered and the new Empire rising. Rey has shown she has become confident with the force, she has been changed by the events, will Rey complete the hero’s journey?

This next part is speculative

Here is how I believe the Hero’s journey will play out in the next movie(s)

I suspect Rey represents Gilgamesh and Ben represents Enkidu (Enkidu was the companion of Gilgamesh) in Johnson’s overall story. If so it is very likely Rey and Ben will come to respect each other for the yin and yang they represent in the next installment (or they will be forced to work together) and go on to fight some great evil that threatens the balance (or both the rebels and the Empire). Most likely this great evil they need to overcome will be a relative or a person Ben is emotionally attached to. This is because Enkidu’s fatal flaw is uncontrollable emotion. I believe this evil may be a clone of Anakin masked as the new Vader.

Ben will die or be mortally wounded in defending Rey from the evil which she will defeat. In the end his spirit will ascend to become a force ghost but this will be after Rey journeys to discover some cure for his condition but ultimately failing. I would guess his ghost will be a different color representing his not evil but not good nature.

Rey will then return to the rebels and the empire to heal the divide between them, becoming the first empress and titular head of the New Imperial Republic. this is how I would script it if they are following the hero’s journey. 

 .

 

 

Pink America: The United States as a Native American Nation


I have been doing research for several years on the influence of Native American culture and genetics on early frontier European culture. At some point I mean to write a book detailing my research into just how important this influence was on America and how it created a very unique culture from that of the European mainstream.

 

The most important thing rarely mentioned by historians when writing about American history has to be how deep the influence of Native Americans has been on American culture. Across the American landscape everywhere you look there are words in the local native languages. Parks, buildings, roads, cities, and even the states themselves bear the mark of our native history. It may surprise the modern reader when historian Jill Lepore concludes that, “most colonists considered the native language barbaric, even satanic.”[1] This seems antithetical to the notion that so much of the country is named  with native words. Even in New England the name of the state of Massachusetts comes directly from the native language. The state was named after the very people that the Puritans seemed to despise. How does the European colonist go from racial hatred and distrust of a people to venerating them on such a scale? This disconnect would suggest that the answer lies in a cultural cognitive dissonance. American society both embraced and rejected native culture and out of this mental aberration was born the duality of enshrining natives as both noble and savage. Could this veneration be the reason most American’s claim native ancestry, or is there something deeper?

In Lepore’s book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origin of American Identity she attempts to find the answer to the question of what it means to be American through analysis of both sides of King Phillip’s War. While it is an interesting premise, there is some creative license taken with presenting the native side of a war in which very few written records exist. This means that the majority of the written records must come from the colonial viewpoint. Something that is interesting to note is the inability of the average colonist to write. Lepore suggests that while many could read a little that writing was beyond most of the colonists, “and as many as 40 percent of men and 70 percent of women could not even sign their name .”[2] This suggests that even the colonial side of the conflict is not adequately chronicled. We see a skewed view of American character, a view from the top down rather than across the board. So can we know what the average colonial really thought about their native neighbor or are we seeing in this history what the elite want us to see and what they wrote about their native neighbors? Theirs is a narrative that fits the expansionist governmental viewpoint rather than touching on the view of the common man and even the common native.

Another of the problems of looking at this from the perspective Lepore takes is that New England, while long held as the cultural epicenter of America, is only seen that way from within. While popular culture places the Puritans at the very heart of the founding of America as a nation, nothing really could be further from the truth. Their influence while pervasive in academia and as the progenitors of the American university system lacks the true character that makes America unique. The Puritan character is static and unforgiving a people who seem to revel in conformity. This is not the America of the frontier, which so influenced the works of historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner. While Lepore makes some valid points, her thesis is flawed. The American character is not to be discovered in names, in the Puritans, or in wars against the natives. The American character is found on the frontier and the people moving with the frontier. The American character is a product of constant change and evolution. A character that must embrace individuality and face adversity through action and flexibility not static conformity. Each step into new territory brings a new tribe, each different from the last, and each language confronted for the first time. The American people were forged from a union of native culture with European outcasts. The elite for all their words did not forge the American character. The American character was forged through cultural conflict on the most basic level and that character was often tempered by blood. Ship loads of men were coming from Europe into the newly opening frontier. Those same ships were not as packed with women. Yet most of these men end up married with families. Is it possible that the real forging of America was a union of blood as much as a conflict of shed blood?

Historian Ned Blackhawk is right in concluding that, “violence both predated and became intrinsic to American expansion.”[3] However, Blackhawk and to an even greater extent Lapore overlook some of the more culturally important narratives that were going on behind the scenes. While Lepore and Blackhawk both concentrate on the big picture of empire and war, these same Native Americans who would later succumb to war, by whatever name it would be called, had also been in contact with European colonists. Many of these natives especially on the East Coast had been in contact with settlers for centuries. The common colonist had no interest in war or conquest. These Europeans would often take native wives and learn native skills to deal with the frontier. In Sixteenth and Seventeenth century America it is the mother who does most of the early child rearing and it is quite possible that the number of native wives in the early colonial periods have been vastly under-counted. Current DNA data suggests that Native American ancestry among people of European descent in the United States is more common than had been previously thought (I myself have been tested and discovered I have Native American ancestry). It may be interesting to note that many of those men counted as European in early American society may have had grandmothers who were full blood natives. This would suggest that the culture that fought against the natives for conquest of the frontier was not fully European but a mélange of native and white. Does blood quantum make you a native or does culture? That is probably the most important question to ask. If most Americans whose ancestors have been on this continent for over a hundred years have one or more native ancestors (usually female) does that mean they have at least in some small part native cultural holdovers? What does this mean for American society and our view of how we came to be? It may suggest that the cognitive dissonance which plagued Americans in the first years of the Republic, seeing natives as savage and as noble, was not a conflict between competing ideas about Native Americans, but a cultural conflict in which we see ourselves embodied in those that went before.  Were we actually a nation of European colonists or a Native American Nation? Cotton Mather might not like the answer.

 

Bibliography

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the land: Indians and empires in the early American West.

Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006.

 

Lepore, Jill. The name of war: King Philip’s War and the origins of American identity. New

York: Knopf, 1998.

     [1] Jill Lepore, The name of war: King Philip’s War and the origins of American identity (New York: Knopf, 1998), 222.

      [2] Jill Lepore, The name of war: King Philip’s War and the origins of American identity (New York: Knopf, 1998)

     [3] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the land: Indians and empires in the early American West (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006), 9.

We Can Still Learn From Vern

Vernon Ehlers – candidate photo

Former Michigan Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, the first PhD physicist in the House of Representatives and the only one so far from the Republican party, died on August 15 at the age of eighty-three. His tenure in Congress (from 1993 to 2010) capped off a most impressive career as a scientist (specializing in studies of the nuclei of alkaline and post-transition metals), educator and science adviser to Gerald Ford while the future President held the same Congressional seat that Ehlers would later occupy. While in office, Ehlers continually brought his scientific expertise to bear on a variety of issues and functions: he wrote-up the most significant study and proclamation on the American scientific research program since Vannevar Bush, helped to wire Congress to the Internet, and was a reliable go-to information source for Republicans and Democrats alike on issues ranging from global warming to nuclear weapons control. He never forgot his constituency in Grand Rapids either, and was responsible for legislation that helped clean up the Great Lakes and control the influx of Asian carp and other invasive species into the ecosystem. Even when the partisan divide in Congress threatened to become a chasm, the soft-spoken Ehlers remained a role model for his colleagues, the epitome of civil dialogue and ethical speech. Someone who is at once both a gentleman and a gentle man is a rare creature indeed, and we need more politicians with both the professional attitude and professional expertise Ehlers embodied.

Initial reports of Ehlers’s passing did not list a cause of death, but later articles indicated he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That’s an especially tragic way to go for someone known for his great intellect, but even before then, I suspected he had died from a broken heart as a result of seeing what had happened to the Republican party. Not because the party had moved too far to the right. Nearly all the obituaries called him a moderate and true, he didn’t always vote along party lines, but that’s to be expected when one follows the scientific method in politics as well as at work. He was a deeply Midwestern brand of conservative that tends towards moderate views anyways and some of his more notable breaks with his party (such as his votes for the DREAM act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) probably derived more from his committed Christian faith that encouraged tolerance and compassion. Nor was it the election of Donald Trump and the new incivility that he represents; after all, he was one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest allies while the then-Speaker of the House was being (unfairly) vilified as an incendiary bomb thrower by the media. I suspect instead that he was heartbroken from how the Republican party has seemingly lost its way on science.

It is not surprising that Ehlers worked so closely with Gingrich when one considers that Newt was one of science’s greatest champions in the House, and also frequently went against the supposed party line on environmental issues. Unfortunately since the retirement of both Ehlers and Gingrich from the House, the Republican party has not found someone to replace them, either a professional PhD scientist or someone demonstrably scientifically literate who will work to inform and educate both members of the party and those on the other side of the political aisle. It is a tragedy then that the Republican party has not only ceded science to the Left, but have permitted it to weaponize the rhetoric of science against them, as embodied in the so-called “March for Science”. Alas, the marchers had a valid point: too many Republicans (including the current Commander-in-Chief) have taken what can fairly be called anti-science positions, either in refusing to concede verified scientific facts and take expert advice seriously (the most obvious examples being the embrace of creationism and the knee-jerk rejection of the consensus view on global warming) or in efforts to slash basic scientific research from the budget despite the obvious benefits and payoffs (A recent article on The Federalist has tried to argue otherwise, but I did not find it persuasive. You are only able to read this on the Internet thanks to public investment in high-energy physics). It is a sad commentary on where we are now that someone can be sneeringly designated a “RINO” simply for acknowledging that both evolution and global warming are true and asserting that public policy needs to be based on scientific fact. Worse yet, our leading science popularizers seem intent on exacerbating this problem; instead of working to persuade and inform, they rely on personal attack and ridicule to further dissuade those they need to reach out to the most. How can they claim that “Science is for Everyone” when they aim to exclude at least a third of the public?

Is there a Republican scientist (more specifically, a Republican physicist) out there who will continue Ehlers’s legacy of both defending science as a public speaker and by serving in office with equal effectiveness? The most obvious heir to Ehler’s throne would be Illinois State Representative Mike Fortner. He is not only a first-rate physicist (as a member of the DZero team at Fermilab, he helped to discover the top quark and continued to be an important collaborator on major experiments even while in office) but has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most civil and congenial politicians in the state. Like Ehlers, he is known to have an overall conservative voting record but to also cross party lines occasionally (most significantly being one of a handful of Republicans to vote to override governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of an income tax increase), and is also a hawk on environmental issues, so much so that he has become the rare Republican to be endorsed by the Sierra Club. Furthermore, he has gained a degree of national attention for his work on fair redistricting, using his scientific knowledge and training to help solve complex political problems. Unfortunately, he has just announced his retirement from his State seat at the end of this term, and has not given any indication of plans to run for national office. Further out west, Arizona’s Ruth McClung very nearly became the first woman physicist in Congress (and a genuine rocket scientist, at that!) when she ran in 2010, but has similarly not yet made the decision to run again. That’s a genuine shame as McClung, a Tea Party activist who was just twenty-eight years old when she ran for office, would have not just brought considerable expertise to discussions of such issues as national defense and space research but served as an obvious role model on many different levels.

But it is in California that we see the remarkable phenomenon of not one but two scientists taking a prominent role in the Republican Party and in keeping the conservative movement alive in what has very nearly become a one-party state. Charles Munger Jr. is of course the son of the famous philanthropist but has also had a distinguished career as a physicist at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where he was part of the team that figured out how to produce the first lab-made antimatter atoms. He has also been one of the most visible figures in the state Republican party, funding campaigns for viable candidates and ballot propositions to stem the rapid tide of “progressive” legislation in the state. One of his closest allies is Sam Blakeslee, a former geophysicist and state senator who is now director of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University. However they have also remained dedicated to state and local-level politics instead of trying to engage with conservatives all across the country. Clearly, a national figure within the Republican party who will help to both defend science from ill-thought out attacks from misguided compatriots as well as to explain basic scientific facts to them has yet to emerge, yet is especially-desperately-needed at this time.

A week after Ehlers’s death, The Detroit News published a moving editorial on how voters and politicians of both parties can learn from Ehlers’s example if they really want to to “return civility and reasoned governing” to the political process. Republican politicians and conservative voters can especially learn from his example by making the effort to be as scientifically literate and informed as possible. In particular, conservative scientists need to speak up, and make their voices heard in political debate, not just to increase the diversity of voices but to specifically provide a voice that can reduce misconceptions and misrepresentations from all sides. Additionally, those who have taken up the task of communicating science can also learn from Ehlers on how to address and engage politically and socially conservative audiences, and to learn to listen to their concerns as much as they hope they will listen to their advice. If they are genuinely concerned about science in this country and actually want to see policies based on facts and evidence instead of mere rhetoric, then they will have to make a sincere effort to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle. All the same, it is up to the Republican party itself as well as unaffiliated conservatives and libertarians to learn to listen more carefully to scientists and be more receptive to the concerns of the scientific community. As Jon Huntsman has long maintained, the last thing they should do is let themselves be seen as the anti-science party.

Cultural Discordance and the Evolution of Chivalry:  Western European Conflict as Moral Imperative

Cultural Discordance and the Evolution of Chivalry: Western European Conflict as Moral Imperative

The philosophical concepts of Chivalry develop from a mixture of what seem to be essentially two incompatible ethical systems; The Judeo-Christian ethical system and the warrior virtues of the Celtic/German tribal people of Europe. These two systems on the surface do not seem compatible and taken together should mix as well as oil and water. The ideology of Christ and that of the tribal people of Europe are in opposition in almost every way. So how did these two systems come together to form the underpinning of both Western society and the ethical imperative of the warrior class which dominated that society?

The answer to this question lies within the violent cultural mélange that was taking place in Europe at the fall of the Roman Empire. Out of this stew pot of cultural clash the ethical system of Chivalry arose. Chivalry combined aspects of Christian piety and ethics with the violent and individualistic hero worship of the European tribal people. Both these groups had inherited what was left of the fallen Roman Empire. The glue that held the church and tribal people together was their belief in the Roman idea of empire. The individualist warrior class that arose from the fall of Rome was a mess of conflicting beliefs. Those beliefs coalesced out of a mixture of German/Celtic barbarism, Roman civil ethics, and Christian mysticism. These cultures which had clashed during the long fall of Rome merged and began a thousand year domination of the ideology of the Western European upper classes. This emerging ideology would be called Chivalry after the French word for horseman and would arguably become the most important ethical philosophy of the middle ages.

 

Christian Morality and Chivalry

The warrior class in Europe had internalized Roman and Aristotelian philosophy during the long years of Roman domination, but with the fall of Rome the Catholic Church was working feverously to instill Christian beliefs and ideas into the ruling classes among these warriors. The Heliand or  Saxon Bible is one of these endeavors. To make Christian theology palatable to the warrior class Catholic monks recreated the New Testament gospels into a story that matched the type of heroic epic that German culture was accustom too. In the Heliand Joseph and Mary are transformed into heroic warrior figures Joseph a noble “Knight” and Mary a princess. Christ is the son of God and the promised “Warrior King” who will unite all the tribes.  It is a very different interpretation of the Gospel with magic, castles, and mystical heroes. A tale suited to entice the German pagans to convert. The Heliand is very similar to the same type of Arthurian tales that had been popular just after the fall of Rome in Briton and one might wonder if the origins of the Arthurian legends are not a lost mythology created by earlier Briton Christians seeking converts as well. Arthur is undoubtedly a British Christ figure. The once and future King who works to unite all the kingdoms in peace and equality.  A man prophesied to return from the dead and save Briton in a time of trouble. Far too many similarities exist to the Heliand to dismiss this as chance.

In the introduction to the Heliand by Ronald Murphy he states the Heliand” is intended to bring the gospel home to the Saxons in a poetic environment in order to help the Saxons to cease their vacillation between their warrior loyalty to the old Gods and to the might of Christ”[1]. Murphy believes that this work was never meant to be read in the church itself but was meant to be a Bible for laymen and warrior chiefs. It was to be recited in the mead halls as an epic poem. This epic was just different enough from the original gospel to fit into the warrior beliefs of these German tribes, just as the tales of Arthur fit into this same mold. Both works were geared towards turning a warrior tribal people away from their old religions to the new Christian faith. Sidney Painter in his work sees knighthood as an extension of several different philosophical ideologies. One philosophy dominated by the Germanic tribal warrior’s belief in prowess at arms, a second devoted to the Church militant, and a third devoted to a late outgrowth of chivalry devoted to sensual pleasures. The first two overlap greatly and it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish the holy knight from that one who holds the ideas of Christ first and foremost.  “From the sixth to the eleventh centuries the church strove to curb the typical vices of the warrior class or to turn them into channels it approved”[2] the Heliand was just one of the ways that the church sought to indoctrinate the warrior class. Another method that Painter discusses is the sublimation of violence to more useful efforts that served the church. The crusades were the culmination of these efforts. The crusades marked the ultimate power of the Church over the ideas of chivalry and the knights that followed those ideas. Here the church could use their influence over the flowering philosophy and develop for itself an army of true believers willing to die for their cause. When Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade on November 27, 1095 little did he realize how well the church had done its job at inculcating the people of Europe with the ideas of Christianity or how heart felt was the fervent desire to show their dedication to the cause of Christ. This desire was born out of a clash of cultures, the Christian ethics had merged with the tribal aggressive and warlike nature and born from this fusion were the knights of the church.“The response was immediate and tremendous. Cries of  ‘Deus le Volt’ God wills it interrupted the speech”[3]. With the crusades in full swing and the promise of eternal salvation for dying in the service of the church, the ideas of Christian piety would be stamped onto chivalry until well after the renaissance.

 

German and Celtic Hero Worship and Its role in the formation of Chivalry

 

“About this time, the king of England resolved to rebuild and embellish the great castle of Windsor, which King Arthur had first founded in time past, and where he had erected and established that noble round table from whence so many gallant knights had issued forth, and displayed the valiant prowess of their deeds at arms over the world.”[4]

 

The ideas that helped bind Christian morals and tribal warrior virtue into a coherent chivalric idea was the idea of the heroic individual. This idea helped navigate the difficulty in creating a warrior class that at once reveled in prideful boasts and great deeds, kept faith with their liege lord, and at the same time gave more than lip service to the ideas of virtue and humility that came with a belief in Christ. A cursory look at European cultural identity will show that the framework on which the chivalric philosophy rested existed in Europe prior to the influence of either Romans or Christians. This framework existed in both the Germanic and Celtic tribes that made up the bulk of the European population. These people had a tradition of what approximated Knighthood only lacking according to Sidney Painter “the nourishment of twelfth century France to spring into full flower.”[5] By this Painter means that the ideas of chivalry manifested and paired with the ideas of Christian courtesy and the Feudal commitment in the twelfth century and with this fusion it became a complete philosophy. The individualist hero had become the tame individual whose individuality was measured and tempered by his feudal obligations. As the middle-ages progressed Knighthood evolved from the rampaging Beowulf to the courteous Lancelot. Both literature and culture reflected the new individual as hero. The knight transformed in the twelfth century from tribesman to loyal servant while still maintaining his individuality. “[T]he fundamental quality of feudalism is reflected in one of the chief doctrines of their metaphysics: the self-sufficiency of the individual”[6] This individuality allowed the warrior class to embrace the Christian ethic of individual salvation. It encouraged that individual to see himself as a warrior of Christ rather than just a tribal thug.

Of course the evolution to this feudal knight began long before the twelfth century. We can see the beginnings of these warrior elite in the Romano-Celtic stories of King Arthur. To even consider the ideas of Chivalry without a discussion of Arthur would be to do no justice to the subject. Painter focuses almost solely on the contributions of the Germans and French to the ideas of Chivalry but it is in the sagas and stories of the early Britons that most of our mythology about knights and Chivalry are created. Those twelfth century French nobles who put the finishing touches on this warrior philosophy certainly had Arthur in mind as many of the stories of Arthur and his knights appear in France at this time. The warrior idea then develops from both the tribal German and the tribal Celtic tradition. The Germans provide Beowulf and Percival as the founding knights of their branch of Chivalry and the Celtic/Romans providing Arthur, and Galahad. The Celtic tradition also gives us the ideas surrounding the Holy Grail as it is a substitution of many different magical cups and bowls in Celtic mythology.

 

Contradictory Beliefs and Social Cohesion

The fall of Rome was a time of upheaval and of conflict. Small kingdoms rose and fell constantly. Western Europe had been thrown into a dark age without Rome to lead and warriors were constantly vying for power among themselves and with the Christian church. How does social cohesion come out of the conflict between these very different and competing systems of value. Much of this can be explained away by the fact that Chivalry was for the most part a very individualistic philosophy and that the individual was allowed to create for himself a way of thinking that could encompass the contradictions. That the church had bent over backwards to accommodate that type of thinking is evident by such things as the Heliand and the church’s ability to embrace pagan gods as saints and incorporate the worship of these gods into Christian theology. This allowed Christianity to out compete some of the other religious philosophies that had much more rigid theological rules. This does not however explain how a religion that at its core promotes peace and love could be shoehorned to fit the fractious warrior ethics of the tribal peoples of Europe.

To understand this I think one must understand the place the Church gave itself in medieval society. The church became not the tribe itself but an extension of the tribal family. We begin to see church leaders called father and brother. Female leaders become mother. We have what to the tribal people of Europe is an even more important place for the church than as a political entity. The Church becomes family and as such family is more central to their lives. This fits into the tribal sensibility in a way that other religions lacked. God was the head of the family the Father Head. It was a very personal religious experience very removed from the impersonal gods of both the German and Celtic tribes. This family aspect helped tie the tribal warrior to the Church. The idea of the Mother of God and her mercy may be one of the most important aspects that the Church allowed. This helped bind the warrior class to the teachings of the Church. You constantly find Mary mentioned alongside God in every medieval text, “that is those who love, serve, and honor God and His gentle Mother.”[7] Even here in a text that explains the very rules of war and Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charney you have admonition after admonition to the mother of God. This aspect of the family appealed greatly to the tribal people and the belief that these supernatural beings were here now and part of a larger family of man helped mediate a truce between the conflicting ideas of a tribal warrior culture and the Christian feudal culture that had begun to supplant it.

 

Late Medieval Knighthood the Culmination of Chivalry

Knighthood and the ideas of Chivalry are intertwined and where one ends and the other begins is a question almost more fit for philosophers than historians. What we do know is that the end result of the conflict between the ethical ideas of Christianity and the individualistic ideas of tribal Europe created the vibrant feudal culture and brought about the rise of the philosophy of Chivalry among the Nobility. As the middle ages waned these ideas slowly began to diminish in importance until they are often little more than philosophical ideas without real world application. By the end of the 14th century chivalry had begun to wane. The ideas were celebrated in songs and story but the ideas no longer held true to the newer generations. The tribal culture had been completely subdued and the Church was on the verge of a century of breakup and dissolution because of its own excesses. Without these two philosophical powerhouses to drive it chivalry was to die and be replaced by a more modern and less warrior centered culture. Nobles would hire others to make war for them and these mercenaries would change the face of combat. Chivalry would live on and from time to time be trotted out as spectacle. Even today the last vestiges of the old ideas flitter around the corners of our society influencing us as a culture is ways we may not even realize.

 

Conclusion

The medieval value system was in essence a continuation of all the Western values dating back to at least the time of Greece. We see in the Greek the very same elevation of the individualist hero that we have in the later European middle ages. This is of course because both Greece and Europe share an Indo-European heritage in which the individual warrior/hero is exalted. This idea of the individual hero became somewhat submerged in the state centered Rome. Where the Empire and civilization becomes the central figure and the individual sublimated himself to the idea of Rome. The rise of Christianity in the late Roman period pairs perfectly with this idea of the centrality of “State” over the individual where the idea of the state as father is replaced with the idea of “God” as father. You can see that in Augustine’s City of God where he states that the Romans of antiquity were virtuous pagans but that the city while great was one of this world and has now been replaced by his City of God.

The values of the early medieval warrior are not those values cherished by the Romans. The European knight is not a Roman hero who wins because he is part of a greater Empire but something far older; he is the winner of the Hero’s portion. An individual striving and winning by his own prowess.  The values of the Church and of Rome often run in direct contradiction to the earlier ethical ideas of the Germans and Celtics. Stressing humility over pride. Medieval chivalric values become a series of contradictory beliefs that must all be held at once. You are an avenging warrior, who is also a child of a forgiving God. Your must prized value is pride and nobility, but you must also be humble and free of sin. You are a virile man who lusts after women, wine, and song, but you must also be the chaste paragon of virtue who is a symbol of the state. Is it any wonder the poems include someone like Lancelot who was both the most noble of all warriors but who was fatally flawed.  Chivalry contradicts itself because it was cobbled together out of so many different ideas and cultures. The importance of chivalry is that while it was a flawed philosophy it worked and drug Europe out of the Dark ages maintaining order and at least some peace between cultural groups that may have never recovered after the fall of Rome without it and those who followed it.

 

Speculation

This article attempts to draw a conclusion about the evolution of Chivalry out of several disparate ethical and cultural entities. There is one other ethical system that existed prior to the fall of Rome that may or may not have influenced the rise of Chivalry in Western Europe, The ethics of Aristotle specifically those ethics discussed in his work Nicomachean Ethics. Did these ethics have any influence over the development of Chivalry? The roman warrior elite would have certainly been exposed to Aristotle along with many of the early Christian philosophers. Is it a stretch to believe that these ideas could have trickled down into the warrior elite of medieval society?

 

 

 

Rome and Aristotle’s role in Chivalry

We find in the values of the early Middle Ages a stable system of belief that would eventually be called chivalry. Early modern writers on the subject such as Sidney Painter suggested that Chivalric ideas are directly centered on German and Anglo Saxon ethics and Christian beliefs. He gives very little credit to ideas of a Roman tradition and no mention of Aristotle at all in his book French Chivalry. This may be a mistake, the Roman tradition is all important to the medieval mind. Rome was the center of knowledge and power to conquerors like Charlemagne who sought to recreate Rome in his own Empire. This was not just lip service to these men they believed in Rome and in rebuilding the Roman Empire. They read the histories or had them read to them. Aristotle was an important part of this Roman idea. In Norman F. Cantor’s work The Last Knight he acknowledges that at least late in the late middle ages young knights were being educated in Aristotle, “These short tomes were written by university scholars educated in Aristotelian tradition, the principles the Mirror of Princes inculcated was drawn heavily from Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics.”[8] This is an important admission and points to the fact that knights may have often been educated in these ideas. If we look at Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics we can see the entirety of what could be called the Chivalric virtues laid out hundreds of years prior to any Western writer referring to them. In book three Aristotle lists these virtues as Liberality, Magnificence, Greatness of soul, Proper Ambition, Gentleness, Agreeableness, Sincerity, Wittiness, Modesty. These read almost the same as the knightly virtues with just slight differences and it is certainly closer to the tribal virtues that informed early chivalry than any of the Christian virtues that contradict many of these. Could Aristotle really be the father of the medieval ethic? Charlemagne certainly sought out and emulated the Roman idea as much as possible. Could his influence have added the ideas of Aristotle to the instruction he gave his own fighters. Or is this just a case of parallel evolution of ideas where tribal customs match philosophical ideas. This subject is worthy of further in depth study much more than what can be accomplished in this article.

[1] Murphy, G. Ronald, trans. the Heliand: the Saxon Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 16.

 

[2] Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 66.

 

[3] Steven Runciman. The First Crusade.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43.

 

[4] Jean Froissart, and Geoffrey Brereton. Chronicles (London: Penguin Classics, 1978), 66.

 

[5] Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Mediaeval France (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), 32.

[6] Maurice De Wulf, Philosophy & Civilization in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ, US: Princeton University Press. 1922), 61

 

[7] Geoffroi de Charney, Richard W. Kaeuper, and Elspeth Kennedy. A knight’s own book of chivalry: Geoffroi De Charny (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), 80.

[8] Norman F. Cantor The Last Knight: The Twilight of the Middle Ages and the Birth of the Modern Era (New York: Free Press, 2004),88.

 

 

When Genres Collide (Part One)

When Genres Collide (Part One)

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I was apparently one of the very few science fiction fans who wasn’t blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly being less impressed than those who voted it Best Dramatic Presentation for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2015.  I wasn’t bored when I saw it in a theater, but it went in one eye and out the other, and at the time, I figured it was because it all too obviously followed the same story structure as The Avengers:  a gang of ragtag but super-powerful and/or talented misfits are gathered together to keep a super-powerful MacGuffin from falling into the hands of a super-powerful would-be conqueror, but must learn to get along with each other and overcome their differences after a crushing defeat so they can achieve a final victory.  When I saw it again on television, I unfortunately was bored, and not just because of the feeling that Marvel was merely putting its characters through a series of repetitive mechanical motions had been further reinforced by the mediocre Age of Ultron. It became clear on this second viewing that Guardians of the Galaxy was a fake science fiction film. Although some hardcore science fiction fans don’t consider the comic book movie as properly belonging to the genre in the first place, what I mean by this is that it is a movie that didn’t need to be told as science fiction, since so much of it is obviously lifted from other genres. Like too many other supposed science fiction movies and TV shows of the past forty or thirty years, GotG shamelessly borrows characters and plot elements from Westerns and war movies alike, and also pilfers the crime genre as well, specifically the heist and prison film subgenres.  You can take the same basic plot, characters and devices (minus their alien attributes, of course), and transplant them to 1930s New York City, or 1870s Texas with little difficulty or change.

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The notion of the “fake science fiction film” is one  I first encountered in the critiques of Eighties science fiction film made by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, among others, attacking Hollywood’s tendency to take hoary old cliches and devices from outside genres, and thinking that simply placing them in outer space or the future they could sell them as science fiction to an ignorant public.  Specifically, they both attacked Star Wars as a prime example of a fake science fiction film (today’s fanboys would no doubt be aghast at them and verbally tar and feather them the same way they do Neil DeGrasse Tyson). However, as far as I know, it was given its proper name by the late SF film historian John Brosnan in his excellent book The Primal Screen, and who provided a very simple way to determine whether something was “fake” or “real” science fiction: can the story still support itself after you remove of the science fiction aspects? If yes, it’s fake; if the answer is no, that removal of the science fiction elements also removes crucial parts of the storyline, then it is genuine science fiction. As an example, Brosnan compared Alien Nation (1988) and The Hidden (1987), which are outwardly similar as “cop buddy” films where one of the police officers happens to be an alien, but actually very different in that one is fake science fiction whereas the other is real science fiction. Alien Nation didn’t need to have one of its officers be an alien since the movie proves to be no different than Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Red Heat or any of the other “buddy” films that glutted the box office in the Eighties. Mandy Pantikin’s cauliflower-headed alien could just as well come from any real-life country, and the storyline would not need to be altered a bit. The Hidden, on the other hand, is completely dependent on its central science fiction premise for it to work as not just a movie but as a thriller, being very similar to Hal Clement’s Needle in its basic plot about an alien criminal able to insinuate itself into and take control of host bodies. Another example of a fake science fiction film cited by Brosnan is Predator (1987), which is normally thought of as being a blatant attempt to combine Aliens (1986) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with some of The Terminator (1984) thrown in for good measure. However, it’s really just another iteration of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, which was itself made into a superb motion picture in 1932 and copied many times since. When you get down to it, the alien predator is really no different from Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter or any other variation of Count Zaroff that has come down the pike in nearly a century of homages and rip-offs.

Obviously, a good genre hybrid needs to satisfy the requirements and criteria of a good story in both of the genres it derives from in order to be considered successful, but it also needs to go beyond this, and find a way to get these separate and often disparate generic criteria to work together and play off one another without compromising either. Too many attempts at genre hybridization unfortunately merely try to mash together cliches or re-stage familiar storylines but when done properly, it can result in not just a satisfying story, but one that illuminates the relationships between its parent genres. Let’s now look at some examples to see how it can be done right; we’ll begin with hybrids of the Western genre this week, since as unlikely as it sounds, they’ve been among the most common, or at the very least, the most visible.

The Western

 

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This is probably the most familiar of all genres to be fused with science fiction, namely because it has long been the most contentious. From almost the very beginning, serious science fiction fans and writers have exasperatedly tried to explain to novice writers  that you simply can’t take the conventions of the Western, transplant them to outer space or the far future, and call the results science fiction. In fact, the very term “space opera” was originally a term of derision, comparing the more juvenile pulps to “horse operas,” itself  a derisive description for the formulaic “B” Westerns that were a major part of the film industry from the Twenties through the Forties and was later applied to “dime store” Western novels as well. When Galaxy magazine was launched in 1950 with the intent of providing a consistent source of high-quality socially relevant SF, it made it clear in a back-page editorial that it would not allow hack writers to lazily attempt to quasi-plagiarize stories by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour and then pretend they could be published alongside Jack Williamson and Clifford Simak. As a result, “Bat Durston” has become a pejorative term among SF fans to describe stories and books (especially poorly-written ones) and sometimes even authors that demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of this very basic fact.

 

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Although the Bat Durston story is now extremely rare in written SF, and the term itself has become much less commonly used, it has ironically done more to increase the public’s awareness of the genre’s existence than anything else. Both Star Trek and Star Wars qualify as Bat Durstons, as they were pitched specifically as “Space Westerns,” with Star Trek even going by the working title of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” One reason it’s no longer considered an insult for a story to be called a “Space Western” is that so many beloved media franchises (as opposed to literary ones) have embraced the term wholeheartedly. Of course, I am speaking specifically here of not just Star Wars and Star Trek, but Firefly, possibly the most blatant attempt to disguise a Western as science fiction since the 1981 movie Outland or possibly even 1969’s Moon Zero Two. Whereas forty or thirty years earlier it would have been rejected by many in mainstream fandom as a typical Hollywood misunderstanding of what science fiction really is, it is now used as a litmus test in some quarters to determine one’s credentials as a “hardcore geek,” an attitude I decidedly do not embrace myself. Long before Joss Whedon started making a fool of himself on Twitter, he didn’t impress me with the way he paraded his ignorance of the science fiction genre when hyping Firefly in interviews at the time of its premiere. That the show managed to succeed at all as science fiction is due likely to showrunner Tim Minear, the Gene L. Coon to Whedon’s Roddenberry. Minear has demonstrated a considerable knowledge of science fiction in both its written and filmed formats, and was most likely responsible for such concessions to scientific realism as the lack of sound in space scenes, or having all planets visited being products of terraforming to explain why no life support gear was necessary. He was also likely responsible for the show’s libertarian slant; although Whedon has since gone guano de murcielago crazy with far-left politics, Minear is an admitted moderate conservative with libertarian leanings. For this reason, I’m especially disappointed that his planned adaptation of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress has never gotten off the ground.

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An even more overt libertarian message is laid out in the 1957 novel A Planet for Texans by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, which would belatedly win a Prometheus Award forty-two years later, but more importantly to the subject of this essay, it’s one of the best examples of how to merge to conventions of the Western genre into a science fiction storyline while remaining good science fiction. In fact, it’s not a Western at all: despite taking place on the planet “New Texas” where gigantic cattle-like beasts roam, characters dress in stereotypical cowboy garb, and the type of frontier lawlessness depicted in the likes of Shane and My Darling Clementine runs rampant (this is a world where citizens have the right to assassinate politicians if they feel their freedoms are being infringed), it’s pure science fiction, albeit nowhere near being hard science fiction. If anything, it can be read as a satiric inversion of the Bat Durston story, where six-shooters and Stetsons replace ray guns and bubble helmets instead of the other way around. It is also a serious attempt at trying to depict what a pure libertarian society would look like, making it approachable to the reader by drawing a direct analogy to the most lawless era in American history, before antitrust laws put an end to “robber-baron” industrial monopolies, and despite being sympathetic to such a society also questions the practicality and morality of such a system, ultimately concluding that a civilizing influence is necessary to achieve justice and order in a truly free society.

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Both Michael Crichton’s film Westworld and the current series based on it are also similarly not actual Westerns but straight-up science fiction using one genre to comment on another. The movie specifically adopted certain Western cliches and conventions (not tropes, dammit!) to comment on the distorted and sanitized view of American history that winds up getting commodified and sold as entertainment (also a theme that recurs in Crichton’s similarly-plotted novel Jurassic Park, only instead it comments on how entertainment franchises sell romantic vision of nature and wildlife in the name of profit), using science fiction conceits as rhetorical vehicle to get this message across. The artificial landscapes in both the movie and TV show don’t just replicate a distorted view of history, but serve as mirrors for our own selves and ask us to reflect about the role we play in this distortion. In the movie, we identify very closely with the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who like us movie audience members, willingly partake in a fantasy of the American past sold not just as entertainment but as the “real” West (the presence of similar theme park sections devoted to Ancient Rome and Medieval England also strongly suggest that Crichton is commenting on the misguided romanticizing and commodification of world history as a whole). The new series has seemingly reversed this scenario by making the robots the main characters and the human guests the antagonists, but it shares the same concerns and makes an even deeper critique on not just our compliance but complicity with the misrepresentation of history in the name of entertainment. This time, the robots serve as stand-ins for those who lived in the actual past and are helpless to have their true stories told properly. Whereas Westworld the movie comes out of the revisionist Western movement in the American cinema at the time that attacked romantic notions of the Old West, Westworld the TV series comes out of the television tradition of Deadwood, which aimed to provide as gritty and raw depiction of the past as possible (a goal which hasn’t been limited to Westerns, as Boardwalk Empire is also very much part of this agenda of new realism and deglamorization in televised historical drama as well).

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So far, all the examples we have discussed aren’t really hybrids; they’re just science fiction stories with Western trappings. The reasons why they don’t qualify as true Westerns is quite simple: whereas science fiction is among the most wide-ranging of genres across  time and space, the Western is the among the most limited.  Like a number of other types of historical fiction from around the world-the Chinese wuxia story,  the German Heimat story, the Italian peplum, the Japanese jideigeki – it is a genre limited to a certain country or region during a specific period of time. Its closest relative is the very similar gaucho literature of South America, and like it and the other nationally-specific literatures mentioned would probably be considered a subgenre of historical fiction had it not become such a prolific and popular genre, not just in North America but all around the world.  It’s not surprising then that it is difficult to write a story that’s a genuine hybrid of both science fiction and Western that satisfies the demands of both genres, making use of the idioms, themes and premises that can be shared in a mutually satisfactory manner. But as Lisa Joy, one of the showrunners of the recent Westworld series has noted, the Western and science fiction share one major thing in common, a mutual preoccupation with the notion of frontiers. Writer Andrew Liptak has noted that many of the great early practitioners of Space Opera-Smith, Burroughs and especially Jack Williamson-grew up in or worked for a time in the American West when it was still an open frontier and that the pioneer mentality thoroughly permeates their stories. One of the papers I wrote in film class in fact centered on this similarity, specifically through an analysis of the first Toy Story film (stay with me, here), arguing that Buzz and Woody were stand-ins for respectively, the science fiction and Western genres. Not only do the two genres (competing for the attention of a young audience) share a frontier mythology, but both genres have been criticized for it, one for extolling a mythic, overly-romanticized view of the past, the other for a simplistic and one-dimensional vision of the future. Crichton’s Westworld is in fact a critique of not only the Western’s approach to the frontier theme, presenting it as downright dangerous when conflated with the complexities of the real world, but with its pessimistic attitude towards human and technological failure, critiques science fiction’s approach to the same frontier theme as well, and the TV series continues with this double-sided, Janus-faced critique of our tendency to overly romanticize the past and future alike.

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So is a successful hybrid of the Western and science fiction genres really possible? Why yes, of course!  In fact, one of the best-ever TV shows made in either genre was such a hybrid. No, not Star Trek or Firefly, but The Wild Wild West, which was not only a clever variation on the TV horse operas of the period, but worked brilliantly as science fiction as well. Featuring both fantastic science fiction gadgetry (time machines, robots, and the other infernal machinery employed by the show’s rogue gallery) as well as plausible devices that were nonetheless decidedly out-of-place (any of the spy gadgetry used by Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) in a period Western setting, the show slyly commented on how the hi-tech spy thrillers that were all the rage at the time were just descendants of the Western adventures of years past. It thus commented on our fascination with technology the way only science fiction can, exaggerating it to reflect on contemporary trends and obsessions, as well as more subversively commenting on how all television Westerns are in fact also imaginative fictions that are just as fanciful as it was. In fact, along with Blade Runner and Tron, it’s one of the few instances where a media offshoot has directly influenced SF literature, as it had a marked impact on the later Steampunk subgenre and fandom. Such Steampunk novels as Joe R. Lansdale’s Zeppelins West and Michael Resnick’s The Buntline Special are direct descendants of the show, with the type of technology and storylines imagined by Jules Verne placed in the American West imagined by Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour. Of course, the show had its own antecedents, going all the way back to 1868 with proto-science fiction dime novels such as The Steam Man of the Prairies, and the very infrequent instances where a B Western included science fiction elements, such as Tim McCoy’s The Ghost Patrol in which the bad guys use a death ray to down mail planes and most famously Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire in which a futuristic city lies beneath the Earth’s surface, just under the hero’s ranch.

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What these early films had in common is that they were usually marketed not as SF at all but as typical “oaters,” no different from the usual, more mundane stories and movies (scroll up yonder for The Phantom Empire lobby card). As fantastic as the SF gadgetry was, it was usually subordinate to the Western elements, and easier to swallow than the aliens and space journeys of the SF pulps and serials.  One can be a fan of both genres, but one’s expectations are different from when one picks up a Western and one picks up an SF book. An alternate history story featuring advanced technology for the period such as Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South can be sold in either genre, as while it depicts a past that never was, it is nonetheless one that is plausible and conceivably could have been possible. When aliens or other examples of sheer speculation are introduced, that’s when the story is necessarily sold as science fiction, as we have completely exited the realm of the conceivably possible. Writing a good story about an alien encounter in the Old West comes with its own set of difficulties due to the need to balance the fantastic premise with the gritty and solidly realistic setting and treatment expected of a Western. The results are usually awkward when the approach is heavy-handed, as the 2011 movie Cowboys and Aliens demonstrated, but when treated lightly, as with Howard Waldrop’s delightful novelette Night of the Cooters or the bizarre but lovable Mexican musical comedy film Ship of Monsters, they can also be highly entertaining. At least one great Golden Age author, Theodore Sturgeon, turned to the American West (old and modern) so often, that an anthology of his SF stories in this setting, Sturgeon’s West, was published in 1973. Considering that not just the premise of aliens but the theme of alienation itself were ever-present in Sturgeon’s work, it seems only natural that he would choose it as a setting; with its sparse populace and foreboding landscape, it was an appropriate locale for the stories of loss, loneliness and escape that he was famous for.

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Finally, I cannot end this discussion without mentioning my favorite product of this particular hybridization, the “Cowboy and Dinosaurs” story. It’s rather a natural outgrowth, considering that the American and Canadian West have provided some of the richest Mesozoic fossil troves in the world. The history of paleontology is in fact intertwined with the history of both country’s regions, as the fossil hunts of the mid-late 19th Century helped to drive their economic growth and cultural development and contributed to the mythology of the region, as demonstrated by the enduring interest in the infamous Cope-Marsh rivalry. It’s quite appropriate then that when W.J.T. Mitchell wrote The Last Dinosaur Book, a study of the iconicity of dinosaurs in American culture, the cover illustration depicted an Alamosaurus fighting off a pack of dino-rustlers that originally had been made for Sharon Farber’s “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” when it was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.  Of course, other science fiction writers have been unable to resist the idea, including two of the authors we’ve already mentioned, Harry Turtledove with “The Green Buffalo” and Howard Waldrop with “Green Brother,” as well as Brett Davis’s novels Bone Wars and its sequel Two Tiny Claws. But the premise has perhaps been made most familiar through such movies as The Valley of Gwangi and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, both based on stories originally written by Willis O’Brien.

And what of other genres, you ask? Well, in our next installment we’ll look at how science fiction has been combined with genre closest to it…and it’s probably not the genre you were expecting.

 

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

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The story is at its heart a lament for the end of the mechanical age and a critical examination of the superficiality and commercialism that typified that period of history. The story is broken into four parts the first two each contain a separate song. The first song is sung by the protagonist and the second by his companion Mrs. Davis. The second two parts concern the marriage of the protagonist (Tom) and his companion and the last part their eventual divorce. The characters both celebrate the passing of the age but at the same time fear the unknown age coming. Mrs. Davis states that, “I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort” (Barthelme).

It is important to note that God makes several appearances throughout the story. Fist he is a meter reader who checks on how much electrify is being used then again he appears to enjoy the destruction he is causing in the wake of a global flood. The story can be seen as an elaborate lament of the death of spirituality. Electricity has been discovered to be spiritual Grace. Man has rendered through science the control over the spiritual. The fact that God is destroying the world once again by flooding it could represent the falseness of God’s promise to man.  These religious metaphors continue into the songs. Our protagonist sings a song about Ralph. Ralph is a beautiful character perfect yet tragically flawed. He is most certainly the embodiment of the Anti-Christ the perfect salesman. He is even described as having hoofed feet and he is “coming” for us all.

Mrs. Davis’ song is no less religious in nature. She sings about a character named Maude. Maude is certainly a stand in for the biblical character of Eve. She is described as being under a church dome and yearning the first “yearn”. Obviously this is an allusion to the temptation of Eve by Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Maude also named all the tools in the world while I could probably make a sexual reference here it certainly seems she was around at the beginning if she was the one who had the job of naming things much as God gave Adam the job of naming the animals. In the end they both decide they must move on into the new age even if it will be uncomfortable. This seems to place the story into the context of Adam and Eve. Here are two characters who are forced out of their comfortable existence into one of uncertainty and possible strife.

In the second half of the story God is now seen as hiding. First behind a tree (the Tree of Knowledge perhaps) then behind a table (shades of the last supper).  God is more separate from Tom and Mrs. Davis further from them than he had been in the first two sections of the story. Tom tries to speak with God and his thoughts are very prayer like, but God disappears and Tom assumes it is to read the meters again. Here again is an absent God who does not hear our prayers. The story ends with the divorce of Tom and Mrs. Davis. They have a child and then go their own way each following Ralph (commercialism) or Maude (knowledge) but not God. God is manning the generators and ensuring light and grace at the end of the age.

The story illustrates the death of religion in the mechanical age and the rise of commercialism and scientific progress. Man follows that which is rational to him and wrestles the irrational such as the supernatural into rational concepts. Even though we do these things we still seem to need to see the world in terms of irrational belief. The marriage is certainly a study in irrationality. The rules make little sense but we engage in marriage because we still have a sense of magic and spirituality that even the mechanical age has not taken from us.
 

 

Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.