Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt. 6: Native American Myths (Introduction)

But first we'll learn something about the
Aboriginal Ammeriken Enclave!
Long ago (that is, May 20) when I posted my last installment of my Bird Myths series, I ended with the above statement.  As you may know, I've decided to work on preparing The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars for publication.  These bird myth posts were extracted from a much later part of that piece.  I intend to cut out this part, but I thought the material was too interesting to waste (I may add bits of it to the first volume of MWFB).  The character who narrates the Native American (or Aboriginal Ammeriken, as that ethnic group is called in the 28th century) myths first provides a glimpse into his own future history.  Here it is:
"That just leaves us with Lt. Brokenbow’s story," said Robbie.  "Have you got anything that can match all these others, Howie?”
With his infectious wide-mouthed grin, the young gravity engineer jumped up to sit on the table.  “Yes, sir, Captain!  And I thought you’d never get to me!  We’ve heard Inden stories, and Judish and Afriken and Middle East and Griek, but we haven’t heard anything from Midammerik, and I suppose that’s because all Midammerikens came from somewhere else originally so they have only borrowed traditions.  All, that is, except aboriginal Ammerikens.  And that’s what I am – I mean, a good deal of me is – I’m not sure there’s anybody left in the world with an undiluted AbAm genome.  But I do have the lineage from all four of my grandparents, which is a feat in itself.  I’ve got Osage and Hopi on my father’s side, and my mother descends from the people of the northwestern coast of this continent.  A group made up of different tribes fled their homeland at the beginning of the 24th century when the TWL Gerard ‘The Sapper’ Chance seized power in the Greater Northwest and the area seceded from the Old Ammeriken States.  Like so many people in those perilous times, they headed for the center of the continent and ended up in Okloh Prefecture.
“I was born and raised in the western part of Okloh Prefecture, on a Gov enterprise that’s dedicated to maintaining the prairie ecosystem while raising semi-domesticated bison for human consumption.  A livestock ranch, to put it in simpler terms.  But that doesn’t mean that my parents lacked education; my father was a school administrator and taught middle and upper form mathematics and my mother had studied business and accounting.  She started out as the ranch’s purchasing agent and ended up as Business Officer for the entire operation.  I spent all my summers riding horses and herding bison, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t good in school.  I liked math and science best, but my parents, and especially my mother, wanted me to learn something about my heritage, so she arranged for me to spend my third year of prep in Old Aridzone, studying in the Aboriginal Ammeriken Enclave.  I didn’t much want to go, but she insisted.  She had done that herself as an adolescent and she found the experience beneficial.
“Let me refresh your memories on the history of the AAE.  Its citizens are about 65 percent Navao, an AbAm people who lived in that area PDA on what was called a ‘reservation’ – a piece of usually worthless land where the governments of the time would stick uncooperative AbAms when they got to be a nuisance.  Actually, the foreign settlers of this part of the world stole all the land from the AbAms, but so much time has passed that that’s not relevant any longer.  The Navao had – and still have – their own language; it’s one of the few aboriginal languages to survive in spoken form, and they did a better job than most of governing themselves and preserving their heritage.
“Because they kept themselves isolated from the rest of the world and because they were used to hardship and lack of resources, they survived the water famines and the diseases and the destruction of the big dams on the Koloredo River better than the urban centers did.  When the ancient Aridzonan cities of Phenix and Toosen lost their water supplies and were abandoned, the Navao endured.  Gradually they spread out of their reservation and populated the entire northern half of Aridzone.  At the time of Unification they petitioned to be chartered as an Enclave.  They were granted the Charter on condition that they accept any individual who could prove AbAm ancestry and who wanted to join them.  That was because EarthGov didn’t want every little remnant tribe with a dozen members seeking to set up tiny Enclaves all over Northwest Quad.  And the Navao realized that such inclusiveness would in fact benefit the preservation of AbAm culture. 
 “The citizens of the Enclave are a bit xenophobic; they don’t relish publicity and they’re very self-sufficient, and since they have a peaceful ethic, the world pretty much ignores them.  But that doesn’t mean they’re backward.  Today they run not only their own Enclave – they’re also charged with administering the entire Aridzone Preserve, including the Great Koloredo Canyon.  The Navao are fanatical about caring for the land; they allow people to come in, but they regulate tourism severely.  For example, if you don’t have credentials as a field scientist, you have to obtain a special pass to visit the Canyon, and only a limited number are issued –  there is a waiting list five years long.
“The capital city of the AAE is Flagstown, just south of the Great Koloredo Canyon.  The Enclave residents have their own university there.  Actually, it’s not called a university – it’s called the Institute of Aboriginal Culture.  It provides pre-grad education for citizens of the Enclave, but otherwise it’s mostly for advanced studies in anthropology and archaeology, cultural history, native languages and art – and mythology, of course.  And they don’t study just aboriginal Ammeriken culture – they study primitive ethnic cultures around the world, like the aboriginal Ostrailiens.  They operate in concert with several of the NWQ Consortium’s Universities, exchanging Professors and providing specialized programs and a base for fieldwork, and they confer their advanced degrees through the Consortium. 
“They also have a special prep program where non-Enclave AbAms who want to learn more about their heritage can spend their Second-Form year.  That’s what I did and I found it just as rewarding as my mother had.”  Howie nodded at his attentive audience.  “So that’s the lengthy preamble to my tales!  I just wanted you all to know how I happened to have learned what I’m about to tell you, because I’m sure most of the world has forgotten."
Coming next:
The final installment of this series: Native American Bird Myths (continued)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Becoming Human: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

       This is the only time I can remember finding a book I wanted to read (and one I ended up loving) on one of Amazon's bestseller email notices.  The title caught my attention for two reasons: my interest in Judaism and my interest in myth and legend as displayed in literature, which is one of the subjects of this blog.  The Golem and the Jinni is a perfect fit for that subject.

       Two creatures of legend, mysticism, and magic end up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  That in itself is an intriguing premise. 
       The jinn (sing. jinni), according to Wikipedia, are spiritual creatures mentioned in the Qur'an who inhabit a dimension beyond the visible universe and are made of fire.  They also have a physical nature and are able to interact with people and objects.  They can be good, evil, or neutrally benevolent and so, like human beings, have free will.  Fiendish types of jinn also exist, notably the ghul (our word ghoul) and the ifrit, among others.  The ifrit is a brutish and wicked sort that has a part to play in Wecker's book.
       A golem, on the other hand, is just about the most corporeal creature that one can imagine.  It comes from Jewish legends, tales of certain Rabbis of medieval and Renaissance times who created beings out of clay and brought them to life with incantations incorporating a shem, or Name of God.  The shem was placed on the forehead of the golem or written on a slip of paper and placed in the golem's mouth.  However, only God can give true life; a golem must be forever flawed and will ultimately turn violent and destroy its creator.  The Hebrew word means simply unshaped matter; interestingly, Adam was originally a golem formed by God out of earth.  In modern Hebrew the word means dumb or helpless, or is used for a "brainless lunk."  (Wikipedia)  The golem legend turns up in numerous literary sources, including Frankenstein's monster.
       In Helene Wecker's book, the golem has been taken up a notch.  Rotfeld, a lonely Polish furniture maker asks an old Jewish mystic, Yehudah Schaalman, to create a female golem to be his wife. He requests that she be given qualities of curiosity and intelligence.  Then Rotfeld emigrates to New York City, taking his unawakenened wife with him in a crate.  Partway through the voyage, Rotfeld animates her, using the words written on a slip of paper; one set of words will awaken her and another will destroy her.  But then Rotfeld suffers a burst appendix and dies immediately after animating her, leaving her on her own, possessed of Rotfeld's meager possessions, including the slip of paper that carries her life and death written on it.  She ends up wandering the streets of New York City, where she is befriended by the elderly Rabbi Meyer, who recognizes what she is.  The good Rabbi decides not to destroy her, but to try to educate her to live as a human.  He names her Chava, or Life.
       Meanwhile, a tinsmith in New York City's Little Syria is repairing a copper flask and when he obliterates some of the engraved design, out pops this tall, handsome male  figure -- a jinni who has been imprisoned in the flask but can't remember how he got there.  He wears an iron cuff that keeps him bound to a human form.  The tinsmith gives him the name Ahmad and ultimately, he and Chava meet.  Fire and Earth attract each other, it seems.
       The plot of The Golem and the Jinni is quite complex.  There are a lot of characters, each of whom has a story.  These stories are interwoven a piece at a time, each a plotline of its own.  The author makes this work beautifully.  Somehow the reader never quite forgets what has gone before in any given plotline.  It reminds me of a Middle Eastern carpet, each little piece of story knotted into the whole until gradually the entire pattern emerges.  How will the tales of Fadwa and Ice Cream Saleh and Sophia Winston and Anna Blumberg and the Rabbi's nephew Michael all ultimately come together?  It keeps the reader champing to learn what will happen next.
       Meanwhile, the main characters are learning how to be human, a process far more difficult for the jinni than for the golem.  Before a wizard imprisoned him in the flask, the jinni had been accustomed to flying above the desert, building himself beautiful glass palaces at will, indulging his casual curiosity about human beings.  Now tied to earth, he retains his qualities of arrogant free will, unencumbered by any moral sense, any sense of right and wrong.  These instincts lie dormant inside him, however, and he emerges as a character the reader can't help liking and empathizing with in spite of some of his questionable behaviors.  Gradually, as the plot proceeds, he learns that loving and caring are a large part of what makes human beings unique and important.
       Because the golem was created to serve a master, she already knows that giving is an important quality and so she possesses a natural empathy.  She is a tall woman with immense physical strength and she learns from the Rabbi that she is likely to turn violent and destroy any threat to whatever she cares about.  But she was also created with intelligence and she recognizes that she must overcome this tendency if she wishes to continue to live.  For her to  become human, she must control her primitive instincts.  Surely that is something we all must do if we wish to call ourselves human. Since all humans possess bodies created of elemental substances and will return to those substances sooner or later, we have more in common with golems than we could ever have with an incorporeal creature made of fire.
       At one point Chava, who can read thoughts and feelings, sorrows over the sight of homeless men shivering under thin blankets on park benches.  It's obvious in the following exchange that it's Chava who is closest to attaining humanity. 
       "They need so much," she murmured.  "And I just walk by."
       "Yes, but what would you do?  Feed them all, take them home with you?  You aren't responsible for them."
       "Easy to say, when you can't hear them."
       "It's still true.  You're generous to a fault, Chava.  I think you'd give your own self away, if only someone wished for it."
       A final word on the book's style.  I often read the 2- or 3-star reviews in Amazon to see if I agree or disagree.  One of these stated that the prose was "elemental and pedestrian, lacking the poetics such as lyricism, imagery, metaphor and simile, that I so favor in my prose."  Strangely, I don't find that to be true at all.   The narrative style is simple and straightforward and very readable, never getting in the way of comprehension.  But it is also interwoven with wonderful metaphors and similes, like the bits of colored class embedded in one of the jinni's intricate necklaces.  Here are a few examples:
       "Sophia's mother was in one of her states, careening about the house like a loose parakeet."
       "The rooftops lapped each other into the distance, like an illuminated spread of playing cards."
       "He clasped the necklace around [Fadwa's] throat, his arms almost embracing her.  He smelled warm, like a stone baking in the sun."
       "The more he rode the trolleys and trains of New York, the more they seemed to form a giant, malevolent bellows, inhaling defenseless passengers from platforms and blowing them out again elsewhere."
       "Night was falling in the desert. ...  It flattened the hills and stones, so that from its mouth, ibn Malik's cave seemed an endless abcess in the earth."
      "The skies had refused to deliver on their promise of rain; the thick clouds hung low and unmoving over the city like the pale underbelly of some gigantic worm."
       There is another character in the book: the 1890s city of New York.  This squalid concatenation of different ethnic groups, coping with a life that didn't turn out quite as well as they had hoped, becomes a place of enchantment, a lyrical metaphor all of its own -- a world of magic and mysticism quite as enthralling as if it existed on another planet.
       I could write a lot more about The Golem and the Jinni and some of the deeper meanings embedded in this narrative, but I won't.  What happens as the relationship of this mismatched pair of mythical beings develops is something you will have to find out for yourselves by reading the book. It's a fascinating journey and one I wouldn't spoil for the world.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Creating Alien Races out of Lifeforms Other than Insects: Lemurs

     In my last post I discussed ways in which insects can be converted into intelligent lifeforms.  I have also created ILFs from other species, namely, lemurs, three kinds of birds (eagles, storks, and grouse), and an undefined type of monotreme (egg-laying mammals).  The methodology is similar:  take a planet where, through panspermia, creatures similar to Earthforms have developed, then take the dominant species and allow it to evolve intelligence.  Research the Earthly creature and extrapolate its behaviors -- what would these instinctive behaviors turn into if the creature developed intelligence? Which features would evolution select for and which against?
Today we'll discuss the lemuriforms!
I made this drawing as a solstice card for a friend.  Don't be too hard on it;
it was one of my earliest attempts and I've never been any good
at figure drawing.  However, I think it captures the spirit of the Te Quornaz.
       If you've read The Termite Queen, you know that a couple of the crewmembers are Te Quornaz, from the planet Quornam.  They resemble giant lemurs.  In fact, the Earth island Madasgascar once possessed giant lemurs, some weighing as much as 440 lbs. (Wikipedia), so lemuriforms over 6 feet tall are not out of the question.  On Quornam, prosimians spread over the entire planet, while simians (apes and monkeys) never evolved. 
       I kept a lot of lemur physical characteristics, which vary greatly among species, providing a lot to choose from.  The Te Quornaz are long-limbed with long tails; I made them resemble the ring-tailed lemur, with tails banded with a contrasting color, although I gave them a variety of color combinations as a regional difference.  I kept the long-snouted head, tufted ears, and the comb teeth, which are used for grooming.  I gave them a long middle finger with a grooming claw, combining traits of the aye-aye and the ruffed lemur, which has a short grooming claw on its feet.  I gave them fully opposable thumbs on their forelimbs (arms), which seems to be to be almost a necessary trait for technology-capable species.
       Lemurs as a whole are omnivorous, although this varies widely among species, so I made the Te Quornaz conveniently omnivorous as well.  I made them nocturnal, with big nocturnal eyes that require them to wear googles in bright sunlight, even though many terrestrial species are diurnal, especially the larger ones. Making the Te Quornaz nocturnal helps to differentiate them from humans and creates some amusing cultural conflicts in the plot.  
        Many lemurs have female dominance as a characteristic of their social system, but I didn't retain this.  Males and females are fairly equal on Quornam.  I kept some of the courting patterns, such as mutual grooming with those comb teeth, but I eliminated the "stink fights," where males rub their scent glands on their tales and wave them at each other!  The Te Quornaz have become much more "civilized" than that!  They also do wear garments but mainly for adornment (they love bright colors and pleasant textures); they have no sense of false modesty and are perfectly willing to go naked in public. 
       One of the most compelling characteristics that I adapted was their ability to leap across the ground (particularly the sifakas, who can move across the ground only by leaping sideways on their hind legs, being adapted to vertical leaping and clinging in the trees).  I turned this into an acrobatic ability to dance and leap, which is part of the courtship and mating ritual of the Te Quornaz (see latter half of Chapter 9 of The Termite Queen, v.1,)  At the same time they are very musical, not only singing words but using a descant that I derived from the haunting songs of the indri.   
       I have worked out only certain details of their culture (if I should ever write a book laid on Quornam, I would have to do more world-building), but it has some of the characteristics of ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy -- landholdings (called Aquotae) with villas scattered about a beneficent countryside, with little roadside shrines to some of the gods and a lot of agriculture, including the growing of fruit that is turned into a potent alcoholic drink called zhoka. The ancient families of landed gentry who possess these holdings make up a governing council for the nations.  There are also urban centers that fall outside this ancient system of landholding.  (This is all discussed in that same Chapter 9 cited above.) 
        I have done rudimentary work on Glin Quornaz, the language of Quornam, with a vocabulary of maybe 50 words and some jumbled syntax.  I intended the language to resemble Latin (in keeping with the ancient Roman lifestyle), with lots of cases and declensions.  This is a difficult kind of conlang to write and I never got beyond what I needed for The Termite Queen. 
       A standard phrase of well-wishing, comparable to Good fortune to you! is Mae! zokam laziqua rival shima.  It means "May Fate sing sweet music to you!"  A literal, word-for-word translation is "To you fate sing music sweet."
       I've always enjoyed my long-tailed, furry, large-eyed aliens, and I hope you do, too!