One of the muses finally spoke– I’m not sure which Muse has the portfolio for science fiction.  Anyway, I suddenly have the plot for a new Incatena book.

Well, “plot” is too strong a word. “Predicament” maybe.

Areopolis-MapMorgan decides to quit the exciting but inconvenient life of an Agent, and on a whim decides to go back to Euko Teknik, in the α Centauri system, which is having a reunion for its alumni. The ex-Agent has changed sex (to whatever it wasn’t before) and had a half-mind-wipe in order to put diplomacy and espionage behind. But as we know, you can never really get away from the profession, especially in a spy novel. The boss activates some overrides in Morgan’s neurimplant. One more mission.

α Centauri, by the way, has the somewhat clunky traditional name Rigil Kentaurus. But it turns out to have the name Toliman too, and I’m considering using that. When you’re actually there, you probably don’t want to say “α Centauri A” every time you refer to the sun.

Anyway, the system contains two Incatena planets, Euko and Novorossiya, which have fought a few wars before. They have entirely different approaches and values. Euko is all about human or transhuman potential– they want to explore every possibility and rework humanity to match, and as  Euko has no native ecosphere they can rework the planet too. Novorossiya is into embracing our primate heritage, recreating the ancestral environment in the planet’s mixed alien/earthly ecosphere, and keeping a small technological footprint. (With Incatena technology, you can make your planet look like a jungle if you want– neurimplants are invisible and the high-tech infrastructure is only visible when you need a piece of it.)

But they each have their own planet, so it was not obvious how to get them into a major conflict. Finally I thought of something: The α Centauri is a double system (triple with Proxima, but it’s very far away), and orbits within it may not be stable indefinitely. So let’s say the system is getting unstable– perhaps a passing brown dwarf has destabilized it… only it turns out neither planet wants to take action to fix it. Thus Morgan’s interrupted retirement.

Now, I haven’t actually written a word yet, and it’s in line after a couple of other books anyway, so the two or three of you who’ve read APAF will have to wait a bit. But at least now I have a situation and not just a setting…

I just read Shoplifter, a graphic novel by Michael Cho. I’m ambivalent about it: I like everything about it except the main story.

She may have stolen that cat

She may have stolen that cat

It’s about a young Korean-Canadian woman, Corinna, who works in advertising but has misgivings about it, especially when she’s asked to help market a perfume for nine-year-olds.

What I like most about it: the art. It’s printed in two colors, black and hot pink. I always like this choice, also seen in Ghost World and Fun Home; it clarifies otherwise black-and-white drawings without taking on full-color realism, which can be dull. Plus Cho often leaves out contour lines, which adds an elegant touch.

Also: there’s a story, it’s well paced, and punctuated by little art vistas and occasional jokes.  (I liked the bit where there’s a live news account of a plane crash,which turns out to be less and less tragic as the report continues, with the screen crawl changing accordingly.)  Corinna is cute and her problems are approachable.

What leaves a bad taste is the resolution of the story. Corinna realizes that she really wants to be a writer.  So (SPOILER) she quits her job and, on the very last page, goes into a store to buy some writing notebooks.  Oh come on, Mike.

When you’re a teenager you can get away with thinking “I’m a writer because I want to write.” By the time you’re in your 20s, you should amend that to “I’m a writer because I write.” By her own admission Corinna hasn’t written a thing but ad copy in five years. Aspiring creatives are warned, “Don’t quit the day job.” Corinna does so before she’s even done anything creative.

As Nick Hornby put it,

When I’m reading a novel, I have a need… to believe that the events described therein are definitive, that they really matter to the characters.  In other words, if 1987 turned out to be a real bitch of a year for Winston Smith, then I don’t want to be wasting my time reading about what happened to him back in ’84.

The real story of Corinna is likely what happens after she makes her decision. Can she in fact write?  How does she live while attempting to do it?  Can she still afford the nice apartment she had as a copywriter?  What does she write about?  How does she make anyone care about her writing?  (At least she’s Canadian, so she doesn’t have to worry about health care.)

(Why the title?  Because Corinna is a minor shoplifter.  It turns out that this is a symptom of the falseness of her life.)

It’s nice that Corinna has progressed in her self-actualization, but it’s bothersome that Cho is suggesting that the only thing standing in the way of an artistic career is the determination to get started. And the thing is, he knows this, because he’s published a couple of books himself and done a webcomic. “How I did this” is usually a better story than “How I decided to do it.”

Also— though this may possibly be intentional— I don’t find any of the characters completely likable. Corinna’s misgivings about ads comes off as a bit priggish… it’s perfectly understandable for an outsider, but she’s been doing this for five years, is this the first time she’s faced what advertising is like? Her boss hears about it and basically threatens to fire her, in a very smarmy and polite way. Yet she thanks him for the job at the end. Well, that’s wise— don’t burn your bridges— but it doesn’t make me like the guy.

But, eh, it’s a first novel and, like I said, very well done.  And really fiction doesn’t have to give you good advice.  The story captures the feeling of drifting through your 20s very well, even if it’s not very realistic about what the alternatives are.

No, not the drugs forum, the real one.  I just read a book about it, Silk Road: A new history, by Valerie Hansen.

silkroute

There’s been a lot of archeological research in the last fifty years, and it overturns much of the received wisdom about the Silk Road. E.g., let’s take the summary from Wikipedia:

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, and Arabia, opening long-distance, political and economic interactions between the civilizations. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and religions, syncretic philosophies, and various technologies, as well as diseases, also travelled along the Silk Routes. […]

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians, and from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians. During the coming of age of Islam, Arab traders became prominent.

The major edit: strike the focus on “trade”. Thanks to the dry conditions in the Taklamakan desert, we have extensive written records from certain cities and periods, and trade was– if you’re picturing huge, constant caravans– underwhelming. The size of a party was generally under 10 persons. Only a third of the parties had horses. Groups arrived and departed less than once a week. (We have these records because trade was taxed and regulated. To move within China you had to have a document listing the people and animals in your group and the cities you intended to visit.) It was also incredibly slow: if you made 20 miles a day you were doing pretty well.

The biggest actor in the height of the Silk Road (the first millennium CE) was the Chinese government. It was the major source of product (silk bundles used both as cloth and as currency), of coins, and of demand (what it mostly wanted was horses). When the Tang lost control of the Taklamakan, trade declined greatly.

Also strike “Romans”. The silk route was essentially a line of contact between China and Persia, with an important spur down to India. Quite a few Persian coins have been found in China; no Roman ones. (By contrast Roman coins are easily found in India.) However, the Byzantines got in on the action. The Romans had silk, but most of it came from India or the island of Cos.

And don’t picture people traipsing from Antioch to Xīān. Most trade was local– a merchant would make a circuit of 500 miles or so.

Once you accept the scale and nature of the trade, I’m afraid Hansen ends up undermining her own point. She emphasizes over and over that “merchants” are rarely mentioned in official documents, that full-time traders were small beans, that pilgrims, Chinese garrisons, and official envoys were more important economic factors. Well, yes, that means that goods were traded. The people doing the trading might not have called themselves traders, but large amounts of materials were entering and leaving the region.

It’s well documented (and not neglected in the book) that religions traveled along the silk road– especially Buddhism, but also Zoroastrianism (the old Persian religion), Islam, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity. And again, by her own account, there was a Central Asian community in Xīān, and a Chinese stereotype of Central Asians as rich merchants. These point to a fairly intense level of contact– China was influenced by people and ideas coming from Central Asia far more than those coming from, say, India. (E.g. the Indic writing systems and Theravada Buddhism reached Southeast Asia but not China.)

Plus, don’t underestimate local-scale trade. There are Shāng dynasty tombs from about -1000 containing Central Asian jade. This was long before there was any military presence in the Taklamakan; but jade was increasingly valuable the farther you got from its origins, so it could migrate east in small steps. The major long-distance trade items on the silk road were things like spices, silk, paper, jade, and sal ammoniac– items that were lucrative even in small volume. Thanks to the magic of geographic pricing, the silk road could move items a long way without any individual travelling its whole extent.

Finally, the total tonnage transported might have been low, and mostly inessential luxury goods, but, well, what else would you expect? Large-scale trade in staples like grain existed, but within empires (Egypt to Rome, south to north China). Luxuries are big motivators– the European rush to reach the East was driven by a taste for spices and other Asian goods.

In UI design, a user model is how the user thinks something operates. This is my user model for the shower in my apartment.

waterworx

  • I turn the faucets to a desired temperature.
  • The settings are transferred by mechanical means to the basement.
  • Sensors there determine the position of the controls. These are converted into verbal instructions and communicated by telephone to an old man, who actually adjusts the amount of cold and warm water.
  • The old man is deaf, grumpy, and frequently away or drunk, we don’t know.
  • He’s of mixed Italian and Serbo-Croat descent, and sometimes he hears “cold” as caldo (Italian ‘hot’), or “hot” as Serbo-Croat hladan ‘cold’.
  • Sometimes salesmen call; he takes whatever they say as more commands and changes the water setting. Or maybe it’s just sheer cussedness.
  • There is a range of settings that produces a warm, comfortable shower. These settings are marked “DO NOT USE, FIRING OFFENSE” and he strictly avoids them. However, he can sometimes be coaxed into this range by confusing him with frequent, contradictory orders.

This user model explains and predicts the shower behavior quite reliably.

For my book, I just read Robert Temple’s The Genius of China (1998), which is a popularization of Joseph Needham’s decades-long project to recover and inventory the science and technology of China.

A drum roll for... the dromon

A drum roll for… the dromon

Now, I’m 90% satisfied with the book. For most of its history, China was not only ahead of Europe– which wasn’t that hard to do– but ahead of the Mediterranean and Middle East. It had more intensive agriculture, more sophisticated government, a more inclusive religious atmosphere, and a jump start on any number of technologies: paper, porcelain, gunpowder, printing, the wheelbarrow, the spinning wheel, canal locks, watertight bulkheads, cheap cast iron, the compass, even mathematics and equal temperament in music.

Nor is this, as a general principle, surprising: you’d expect the planet’s richest and most populous civilization to be its most advanced, and so it was. It’s not a bad bet that in a few centuries, when we finally enter galactic civilization, we won’t be known as Terrans but as Dìqiúrén.

But sometimes I want to ask… did anyone check over Needham’s work? To support the idea that the Chinese had man-lifting kites, Needham cites the alchemist Gě Hóng, writing in the 4C:

The Master said, Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion. Others have had the idea of making five snakes, six dragons, and three oxen to meet the “hard wind” and ride on it, not stopping until they have risen to a height of forty lǐ [13 miles]… This account comes from the adepts and is handed down to ordinary people, but they are not likely to understand it.

Needham concedes that we have no evidence of the sort of machines Gě describes, but as for the kites, he thinks “there would have been really nothing to prevent it.” Reeeeally, Joe? That’s the sort of dodge you use when you really really want to believe something. Temple helpfully provides a picture of a hang glider to help the claim sink in.

Surely flight is one of the things attributed to sages all over the world? The Siberian shamans and Castaneda’s Don Juan were supposed to be able to flit about using the spirit world; TM dudes are said to levitate; witches fly on brooms; the Monkey King could jump 108,000 lǐ at a time. In Matthew 3, the devil takes Jesus to a mountain tall enough to see “all the kingdoms of the world”. Gě Hóng goes on to support his notion of a high gale by appealing to how dragons fly. Reading an alchemist literally is generally not a good idea.

In other cases my question is, if you pored over the Western and Arabic historical record, mightn’t you find a large number of surprises? The Greeks and Romans were loquacious on their philosophy and politics, tight-lipped on their engineering. E.g. knowledge of the Antikythera gear work was lost for millennia.

A few pages after the hang gliders, Temple remarks “For most of history, Europeans used ships which were drastically inferior to Chinese ships in every respect imaginable. They had no rudders, no leeboards, no watertight compartments, single masts, and square sails…” Which is simply wrong. Roman ships had rudders and multiple masts. The Byzantine dromon, shown above and used throughout medieval times, had multiple masts and triangular sails.

Needham often suggests that any particular Chinese discovery must have found its way to the West. This is frustrating, as in fact science is full of multiple independent discoveries. Now, sometimes he has good clear evidence: e.g. he has a 1787 quote from Ben Franklin suggesting that mail ships be built with watertight bulkheads “after the Chinese manner”. But the monogenesis of ideas is a terrible heuristic.

Temple’s cheerleading gets tiresome at times— e.g. the last section, on warfare, says “No nation in the world could match the Chinese expertise in warfare for two millennia.” Except, you know, China was conquered twice by northern nomads, and northern China several times more. And China, for all its might, was remarkably unsuccessful at expanding into Korea and Vietnam, despite multiple tries. I think the problem here is that Temple confuses invention with mass deployment: they had land mines! burning gas! cannons! repeating catapults! Well, yes, but it’s far from clear that these were manufactured in sufficient quantity, or used with sufficient skill. Everything in China was at huge scale, but so were the logistical problems. So far as I can see, China’s government was always underfunded, and its army was subpar for an empire its size (not least because its elite was– unusually for the premodern world– not drawn from the military).

(And yes, I’m aware that for some of those conquests, the nomads used Chinese troops and engineers.  On the other hand, the Sòng, back when they controlled all of China, were completely unable to get the Sixteen Prefectures back from the Khitans, which doesn’t say much for Temple’s claim of unbeatability.)

Anyway, it’s still a fascinating book.  As I say, I don’t have problems with 90% of it.  It’s just that a few bits rang my skepticism meter.

I’ve just read a good swath of the New 52 Catwoman, written by Ann Nocenti, drawn by Rafa Sandoval, Jordi Tarragona, Patrick Olliffe, and Tom Nguyen.

Isn't that kind of uncomfortable?

Isn’t that kind of uncomfortable?

On the plus side: it’s very well drawn. I prefer the more minimalist line of Darwyn Cooke, but I can’t complain about the art (as I did with Hellblazer), especially Sandoval’s. Well, actually I can: I like the way the artists design the whole page, and yet they don’t make a pleasing whole in the way that J.H. Williams can do effortlessly, and they rarely offer the sense of wonder  offered by John Cassaday. Plus it kind of bugs me that the artists think people can talk with their mouths closed.

Drawing Catwoman in particular is tricky. On one hand, she’s supposed to be sexy, and she dresses head to toe in black latex. On the other, she’s a badass heroine, so she shouldn’t look like a bondage model. Again, Cooke got the balance right, seemingly without effort. Your mileage may vary, but I’d say these books, in their choice of poses and camera angle, err a little too often on the side of senseless cheesecake.  The shot above is a mild example: is that a pose a rational person would use to get within ten feet of the Joker? (Curiously, though, she keeps her suit zipped up these days, and she wears underwear beneath it.)

As for the stories— I dunno, they’re grim and ultraviolent (autocorrect wants me to say ultraviolet) without any concession to realism. Nocenti’s Catwoman is a little more immoral, more of a loner, than before the New 52. More like Batman, then, but that doesn’t feel like a good move for her— her greater empathy and real concern for the East End were solid pluses.

Gotham City requires a weird balance too. Batman grew out of noir, and his enemies are goth exaggerations of ’30s gangsters. I think Catwoman works best when she’s planning an elaborate heist, or confronting the gangs directly. E.g. there’s a pretty good arc where Penguin sends drone bombs after her, and she directs them back at him.  It’s always fun to see Penguin going in a few seconds from arrogant to sniveling when his bodyguards are stripped away. There’s at least a little grounding in reality here— the book doesn’t have anything to say about gangsters, but at least they’re based on something real.

But Nocenti amps up the wackiness, and I think that doesn’t work so well. Joker plays some mind games with her… eh, that doesn’t make sense; he’s too much the anti-Batman; he was designed to illuminate Batman’s methods and thought processes, and can’t do the same with the Cat. There’s an extended sequence in the remarkably spacious and well-populated underground of Gotham City… it’s just fantasyland with fourth-tier supervillains. Then there’s a competition for Best Thief, which sounds like something from the ’60s Batman TV show. First, if there really were elite thieves, they’d find this sort of reality-show competition beneath them, or too high-profile to be worth it. Second… jeez, one whole issue is devoted to a Mad Max style race in the desert, it’s just goofy. And this arc is narrated in such a fractured way that it felt like pages were missing. (On the plus side, it had one nice idea: during the actual burglary competition, one team almost wins by stealing a bunch of gold; Catwoman wins by stealing a set of documents that’s worth more. A nice touch establishing her greater sophistication.)

Well, Big Comics has to fill dozens of titles every month, and it’s hard to have good ideas each time. But I wonder if grimdark isn’t a little played out. Gangsters and psychopaths are powerful narrative elements, but they don’t constitute an injection of realism any more— quite the opposite, Gotham City’s villains have just been banging around inside their own lurid bubble for eighty years. I don’t have any bright ideas on how to fix it, except to suggest that the most satisfying Catwoman stories tend to be those that downplay the supervillains entirely, and make use of her intelligence and social skills.

I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.

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