Saturday, February 24, 2018

Ancient Peoples

What is a people?

Names are handy labels, but what exactly is under them? You can draw endless maps showing the "Dorians" sweeping into Greece, the "Mycenae" sailing out to Anatolia and engaging the Hittites...but what is this actually telling you?

Take Crete in the late bronze age. The written language was derived from a Minoan script, the patterns of pottery and fabrics are clearly adapted from Minoan, and most of the people have been there for generations, going back well before the Thera eruption. Yet we call them Mycenaean.

(Yes; there's a lot of debate about whether there was truly a Mycenaean empire, or if it is better characterized as loosely associated kingdoms or was the case in Classical times. But it is still, in the Helladic Age, and recognizing their unique culture -- yet no more unique than, say, the Lacedaemons -- called "Mycenaean Crete.")

Or the Hittites, who seemed to be outsiders imposing themselves with what sometimes seems remarkable grace on the existing Hattian and Hurrian and others -- so much so they kept the original name of their capital.

This goes right back to the "pots, not people" cry. When the forms of the art and technology change, is it because ideas moved, or because people moved? We label phases of the culture in an area by these identified changes (often as not, when the patterns on pottery change...or for earlier ages, when the techniques of tool-making change. This is what defines a Clovis Culture from a Folsom Culture.) It is like speciation in paleontology; it's roughly the same fur-bearing mammal it was a thousand generations ago, but to analyze and understand we have to draw artificial lines across the continuum of change, calling it by different names on either side of the divide.

It gets much, much worse when you hit the crux of the late bronze age, the confusing changes in LHIIIB/C. Ramses III identifies the Peleset among Egypt's attackers and indicates he may have settled them in the Levant where they plausibly became the Philistines and gave their name to Palestine, but they brought so much Mycenae pottery and other cultural indicators with them it is hard not to think they may have originated among the Mycenaeans.

But even if they had the same name through this journey, how does this help? How does this connection help us to understand what drove them in desperation at Egypt's shores, and what guided their interactions with their later neighbors, and most importantly how this culture changed and evolved?

I've been thinking about this for a couple weeks now. And today, just randomly, I ran into some rather frightening stuff concerning race and identity in the classical world.

Or, more specifically, how race/ethnicity/cultural identity (not even slightly the same thing, but also three hairy terms that need to be defined carefully within every context they get used in) is of concern to some people today and how their concerns are projected back into the classical world out of a troubled but more recent history.

A lot to unpack. First, the classical world -- and the Bronze Age -- does recognize peoples as distinct, but it is unclear if this extends beyond geography. I mean; an immigrant from Lacedaemon to Athens is recognized as foreign and indeed there are the usual denigrations. But the evidence is that the Athenians thought of this in primarily cultural terms; their children, properly brought up in Athenian society, were as Athenian as any other.

And they recognized that there were people that looked different...but take the Egyptian habit of choosing different colors to illustrate some of their neighbors. They painted the Nubians dark brown in their artwork. But they also painted their own men red (and the women white). There is obviously just as much symbolism as naturalism going on here.

By the Classical age, one can certainly say there is recognition of different skin colors and facial features and body types as characteristic of different peoples. Some Greek writers express their opinions on the relative aesthetics. So you could say there is something that looks like our modern conception of race.

The thing you can't say is that this is sorted in anywhere similar to how we sort it. The Greeks did not have a concept of "white" or "european" (to a Greek, you were either Greek or something foreign and lesser, and the writing doesn't seem to indicate skin color was of primary importance. At best, they'd recognize "white" as being a sick person. They did not resemble and would not recognize what a modern American would call "white.")

But due to lots of complicated history I don't have the slightest interest in getting into now, a whole towering edifice of identity politics has been built around the idea of the idea of the superior, white, Greek culture leading directly to the superior, white, people and culture who built the free world and who are being unfairly kicked out of their position of supremacy in it.

So many, many things get caught up in this whirlpool. Whether Cleopatra was "black" (kind of missing the point there -- no matter what the so-called "sub-Saharan" genetics of Egypt, Cleo herself was basically Greek), whether it is right to take any time away from Plato and Socrates to teach a little Confucius, whether it is an affront to art to allow paint on marble statuary, and whether there ever were those damned Dorians.

Yeah, those terribly suspect and nearly-invisible Dorians (why one writer describes them as the invasion of the cloak pins). Yes, there was a change in culture across the span of the Greek Dark Ages, moving from the Mycenaean culture to the pre-Classical Greeks. Language changed, a new writing system was adopted, and of course the pots changed. The pots always change. Classics scholars hung on to the idea of a mysterious people suddenly sweeping into the Greek mainland at around the end of the Bronze Age bringing this new set of pots with them, hung on to this idea far longer than was warranted by any evidence.

Until you looked at the underbelly of that picture. The Dorians, according to one view, came from Western Europe. Germany, even. Because somehow the people that Homer wrote about were not sufficiently heroic to be the ancestors of the modern western world. Something had to bring the spark of civilization to them and make them into the democracy-inventing carvers of tall, square-jawed, clean-limbed figures in pure white marble.

This ridiculousness is all over the Atlantis myth, of course. And shows up in such bizarre places as the identity of Kennewick Man. And although it makes absolutely no sense projected back to the retreat of the glaciers (as the lighter skin tones don't show up much earlier than ten thousand years ago) the alt-right are all over the Solutrean hypothesis, spinning this poorly thought-out theory in ways bloody bloody Andrew Jackson would find familiar.

Plus you have fools like "23 and Me" sowing even more confusion with their ludicrous attempts at genomic identification.

But this isn't just modern, and it isn't just red stater's with MAGA hats. From the first moments I started reading about the Sea Peoples I started running into weird rambling justifications for how Estonians or Sicilians or whatever were the true font of all civilization ever and deserved to rule the modern world. There's nationalistic identity all over this stuff. Manifest Destiny is alive and well (seriously, half the conflicts out in the world today are about who really truly has the ancestral claim to a bit of land.)

And thus I've discovered Classics scholars are finding themselves uncomfortably in the front lines of a culture war. Some see their subject as being attacked. Others see it as necessary criticism if it is to remain a live study and not a fossilized remnant. And this latter cohort is particularly distressed to see themselves being drafted as supporters of some fantasy world of civilization under attack by barbarians.

This distress is not without basis. It seems the attacks from the alt-right are most vitriolic on those they believe should be their natural allies. What a strange world we live in, when writing about Socrates can get you called an ivory-tower reactionary, and simultaneously called a race traitor. Probably not for the same article, or by the same people, but's enough to drive one to hemlock.

It is also yet one more thing to give a writer of fiction set in this period pause. I was already quite aware of a certain expectation hanging around certain flavors of Bronze Age fiction; red-blooded action with the only context being military and the only people of import being warriors (social justice warriors, however, are to be avoided at all costs).

I was already suspecting I was going into deep waters when I saw my own spin on the Trojan War and the Mycenaean Kings going in the direction of deconstruction...but, yes, once again Homer has gotten there before us. Anyone who thinks the Illiad is all action-adventure without consequences hasn't read the damn thing.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Collapsing Waves

I dreamed up a particularly odd solution to the problem of writing an "Atlantis" story that is honest to known history and archaeology. It's basically the Eco Inversion; Atlantis never was, and the cults and treasure hunters and evil mega-corporations looking for it are the real danger. In this inversion, the trite and ordinary background world is that of these too-familiar myths, and the new and exciting discoveries are that of real history.

Back to the Bronze Age below the fold.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

...a thief, a slayer, a weaver...

I have to wonder if there is such a thing as doing just enough research for a simple adventure -- when the period you want to write about isn't in the shallow end of the reference pool. The late bronze age Aegean isn't exactly the setting you can throw a "Centurion" and "Gladius" at it and call it a day. I am starting to feel that by the time I've collected what I need to sword-and-sandal in the Hittite Empire, I'll be significantly on the way towards a proper historical novel.

Alas, I've gone far North of that question. I've become...intrigued. By historical questions, by the kinds of questions that people write papers about. I'm reading quite heavily now into not just the technology of garment-making but the status and social mobility, living conditions and arrangements of the weavers in the palatial societies of Mycenae. Not exactly Conan stuff here.

Yet, I can totally see my Cretan mountain girl as the main protagonist of a novel. And that brings up so many interesting plotting questions and opportunities. Her conflict on Crete is of course with the Mycenae majority (I'm simplifying, of course...Crete is home to a hybrid and unique polyglot blend of multiple cultures both from mainland Greece and looking back towards the Minoans).

And the Mycenae are tentatively identified as part of the Sea Peoples who fought against Ramses III (and were most certainly involved in raids and conquest in Anatolia...Wilusa most definitely included.) Which means her conflicts as she tries to understand and make way in their society are echoed in the larger movements that will shake the known world.

Does this mean my Mycenaean mercenary is not the best viewpoint character? I'm already quite annoyed that my outlines have so far not included any Hittite voices, and out of the three preeminent empires of the Bronze Age Collapse, it is the one that most assuredly, you know, collapsed.

It's a toss-up; I lose all that lovely stuff about the Homeric musings on honor, and the chance to crib from Xenephon, but I gain...not having to read quite so much Classical literature to get it all "right."

 (I had another of those "coming together" moments whilst listening to a commentary on The Anabasis; Xenephon had gone to Delphi and his tutor complained he asked the wrong question of the oracle. Leading me to remember said tutor was Socrates, who unlike Plato had no problem with the concept of divination. Or at least the commentators tell us; we don't even have a Boswell for Socrates; mostly philosophers and playwrights with their own axes to grind.)

(And Xenephon didn't even test his oracles first with a turtle and a goat in a bathtub...or however that one goes. Not that it did Croesus any good. Oracles; the original GIGO. Xenephon probably knew that story. Yes, it happened before him...Croesus lost his empire to Cyrus the Great, and it was Cyrus the Not-So-Nearly-As-Great who thought he deserved to inherit the Persian Empire of his illustrious ancestor and was willing to enlist Greek mercenaries to help him establish his position. Pity he got himself killed just as they were winning, stranding Xenophon and his friends....and what was I saying about not wanting to go too far into the Classical Age?)

And, yeah, if my characters end up at Wilusa at any point I'm right back in the shadow of Homer again. Like Herodotus, you may hate him, but he's also the source for so very much you just can't get from anywhere else.

Still, I want my characters to do something besides being flotsam on the tides of war (or is that jetsam...) Assuming I don't want to go the full alternate history route (I've just started reading a trilogy in which the Library of Alexandria is saved from burning by some of the mechanisms of Herron...basically it's Steam Punk Romans) then a tempting fall-back position is "yes, but we saved the world from a greater evil."

I'm backing off a bit from gods. Again, depends on the culture, but take your classical Greek Gods. You can fight them, sure. Slaves revolted against the Roman Empire, often enough that they started numbering their "Servile Wars." And always lost. Like the Romans, the Greek Gods would make sure to punish the transgressor horribly to serve as an example to others. This conceit of beating the gods themselves is a peculiarity of our own age.

There's a bit late in The Iliad when Athena gives an ordinary soldier to power to blacken Aphrodite's eye. Ares jumps up in her defense and the soldier gives him a smack, too. At which point basically all of the gods (Athena, certainly) step in with a "Too much, boy. Back off, now." (No more is said about Aphrodite getting driven from the this point all the gods have had it with her.)

(There's something here too about how the Cthulhu Mythos is often misunderstood. The sight of Elder Gods doesn't drive one mad because they are so ugly. It is instead a cold rational glimpse into the reality of an enormous ancient and very much uncaring universe that does it. We, according to the Mythos, don't do well with our protective illusions stripped away.)

And that's even assuming the gods are real. Obviously they are real to my characters. It is hard for someone from a blue state to really understand the absolute permeation of gods and spirits of this time (or so many others...really, more the rule than not). It just isn't a question that occurs to most to ask...and even a strong agnostic is probably going to play Pascal's Wager anyhow.

The most certain thing I can say is after months of research...I am further from actually writing than I was when I started.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Scoring yourself

The more I practice violin, the more I can hear mistakes -- in myself, and in others.

To properly evaluate a skill you need to have some of that skill. Of course, there are external metrics possible; you don't have to know how to play a violin in order to be able to detect if one sounds bad. The thing you don't know is how much skill is involved.

Everyone commits a Dunning-Kruger somewhere. Here's my rule of thumb for avoiding that syndrome; assume a bell curve. If it seems really, really easy or simple to you, but other people are spending a lot of time and effort and otherwise complaining about how hard it is probably you, not them.

As a corollary or maybe ancillary, humans are competitive and ingenious. They will always find a way to do it better, or otherwise raise the difficulty. So whatever activity you are thinking of, look at it in terms of how much time, effort, money it seems sensible for people to be investing it. That's the peak of the bell curve.

So, yes, there are tools by which you can evaluate yourself. It is easy to say you are your own worst critic. In one sense this may be true; you are critical of those things you notice. The wider audience may find other flaws more worthy of attention. Thing is, to say that someone is better than they think they are is the same as saying they don't know what "good" sounds like. And if they don't know that...they aren't very good. Either way, this well-meaning comment is, basically, insulting.

The flip side to the bell curve above is that if you know almost nothing about it but believe it is too hard for are probably wrong. If violin was as hard as some people think then they wouldn't sell a lot of violins. (Well, they might sell them, at that...but there wouldn't be a lot of symphony orchestras, because those things need half a hundred players each).

A thing I hear a lot from people is, "I wouldn't know where to start."

Oops. Now you do. "Where do I start?" is a very, very good starting point. The first step is not to be thrown in the deep end with a violin and a concert score. It is by talking to people who play, watching videos, browsing stores, talking to teachers....basically, answering that question of, "Where do I start?"

Every project I have done has required planning. And more often than not the planning started with planning the planning; with trying to frame just what the project is, what skills or resources will be involved, what the overall goals are. I may be "creative" (whatever the hell that means) but I don't just sit down with a keyboard or paintbrush or CNC Router. I start with scraps of paper and conversations with friends...

...and long, rambling blog posts.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Great Filter

There was a guest post at the Scalzi-blog that got me thinking again about secret histories.

It is such a tempting idea for the fiction writer. Say, a young archaeology student turns over the wrong rock and becomes privy to a dangerous secret. They've discovered something huge and ancient and exciting that explains so many things that were previously mysterious -- but also puts them in the sights of powerful and dangerous forces. The ordinary world is cracked by an out-of-context problem, extraordinary threats coming out of the cracks to be met by previously unlikely (or at least uncalled-for) acts of daring and heroism.

You get the best of so many worlds. The fun of the spoof explanation ("See, the reason the Archduke was assassinated was actually...") and the ease of being able to use the ordinary modern world as a backdrop even as crazy erupts.

There are, however, problems.

One is that most extant pseudo-histories -- Atlantis, Chariots of the Gods, and basically the most common format of such things -- are implicitly insulting both to ancient cultures and the people who study them. (I'm not, however, saying it isn't possible to make a pseudo-history that doesn't tie into existing colonialist, racist, and of course anti-scientific narratives. But if you make up your own totally fresh secret history, you lose the ability to reference all that existing material).

A bigger problem for the writer is that these existing ideas are broken. Von Danieken's stuff has no internal logic. It is destructively contradictory, to the point where you can't make a functional narrative out of it.

The biggest hole being the one that confronts every story hinging on a masquerade, a hidden world, a giant conspiracy; why doesn't everyone already know about it?

One is tempted to look at this as similar to the Fermi Paradox. Assume there is a secret history. Or worse -- if one is contemplating a series, or a particular kind of character or organization with a history of investigating these things -- multiple hidden parts of history. How did they stay hidden? What mechanism is acting to hide all the evidence?

I don't have any good ideas.

One idea is perhaps that whatever the secret history is, it is by its nature something that can be hidden. The problem with this angle of attack is it doesn't leave much of that fun, "this explains all of those...."

For instance; aliens have been visiting in their nearly-undetectable ships for years. Why do we see them now? Radar got better. What evidence is there from the past, once we know how to uncover it? Um...Tunguska? (always got to work that one in!) Because all those thousands of UFO sightings aren't going to work. If they are visible to a guy in a pick-up, they were visible to hundreds over that flight path. If the Air Force chased them in 1940 and talked about it over the radio, then the Air Force would have caught them by 1950.

Sure, you can come with arguments why one sighting is legit, but the obvious flaw didn't get exploited massively. But it very quickly becomes a house of cards (or a game of whack-a-mole; pick your analogy). The more they actually did, the more there are un-coverable clues, the more it begs the question why it is still a secret.

Another tempting explains-everything idea is that there is a secret cult that's been hiding all the evidence. Well, that's a hell of an efficient cult. And it also basically takes the one problem and turns it into two; now you have to hide the cult, too. (Or Men in Black, or Templars, or Warehouse Regents, or whatever).

I think what it comes down to for me is the disjunct between the very precise and subtle ways we are currently looking at available data all the time, and the level of obvious the clue has to be for our Joe Schmo hero to stumble upon it.  And the scale of what is being hidden if it is to be really exciting.

That's why lost civilizations, especially massive, technologically advanced lost civilizations that left clues in the writings of peoples centuries later (hint: Atlantis) bother me so much. If Plato knew enough about it to write about it, the Amarna letters should be going into exhaustive detail. If they were ruling the Aegean, we'd still be seeing remnants of their contribution to decorative arts among the folk cultures of the region (because that's how long decorative elements and scripts and patterns remain). And so on.

So the impossibly huge, impossibly competent secret organization hiding the big important secret is implausible and the really subtle, really easy to hide and did basically nothing interesting in the first place secret is unsatisfying. This can't be a one-axis problem, though. There have to be ways of going orthogonal to this. Ways in which something magnificent and world-changing is intrinsically unknown (until the appropriate moment) in a way that unfolds in a logically satisfying way from their premise.


So far the only glimmer of an idea I have is magical/metaphysical; something about the thing nobody is supposed to know about rewrites evidence or alters minds as a side effect. Like the gamified version of what H.P. was writing about; you see the Elder Gods and you go nuts -- thus fail to communicate their reality to anyone else. Or the timey-whimey version; there used to be a different reality, but time was altered or something in some plot-conveniently messy way that leaves fragmentary clues to be stumbled on.

The latter is in one way rather cute; it means you can have the rational cake and toss it, too, as people can very rightly object that the kind of wide-spread evidence doesn't exist.

But even if the mechanism is pseudo-scientific -- mutter something about intersecting branes or nanotech or destructive memes -- it just feels stupid as well as stupidly convenient.

Hrm.  Maybe the truly viable orthogonal approach is to discard the masquerade; that academia already knows about Atlantis, it is taught in schools and covered at excruciating length on the History Channel (not that it isn't already, mind you). And the McGuffin that drives the story is you've got a better bit of it than anyone else has up to that point.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Saxon Violins

Back to practicing the violin.

The trumpet is where it needs to be for the moment. I could squeak my way through Ecstasy of Gold but fun as it is, that's not really the best instrument for it. "Mark's Theme" (from A Better Tomorrow) is totally a horn piece, but it goes right up into the nosebleed octave and I'm not ready for it yet. So just practicing with whatever is interesting...a bit of St. James Infirmary Blues right now, because it gives me excuses to work on the slide, the wah-wah, and the growl.

For the longest time it felt like I wasn't moving forward on the violin. But since recording with it, I've been better able to take aim at some of the trouble spots that bug me worst (string changes, largely). This week I feel like I am actually improving again.

I also messed around with "Awakening" from Izetta, the Last Witch and now I've got motivation to do some double stops. I still find it easier to work stuff out on keyboard first, then translate to instrument (even recorder, which I've been doing long enough for the notes to be almost instinctive).

I want to record again.

I've got this urge towards more "Bardic Covers." When I covered "Khajiit Like to Sneak" I was thinking thinking in terms of the instruments a bard character in Skyrim would actually use. There is in fact a way to plug custom music into the bard performances in the game (the animations, as you can imagine, aren't closely tracked to the actual sounds being produced).

Plus it is now a tested set of instruments. I know how the recorder, ukulele, bodhran fit together. So I can sort of hear arrangements on these instruments of, say, "Still Alive" from Portal, or "NYC" from Annie.

Which is making me tempted to go in a different direction for the ukulele upgrade I've been wanting for a decade or so now; in the direction of one of these:

But the whole idea is rather silly. Besides not having the $300 or so for one of these guys, the video I put up with the last "Bardic Cover" garnered all of 16 views. Of course one does art for art's sake, or for one's own sake, really, but it is always nice if you can share it. 

(Yes...that's a "Lute-ulele, a four course six-string lute-back instrument with a tenor ukulele fingerboard and tuning.)

Oh, yeah. And this week I've really been wanting to work out some kind of arrangement of "Awakening." 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

I don't get it

A bit over two years ago I stopped being a free-lance contractor and started a full-time job.

Well, nearly full time. I took a reduced hours position with some schedule flexibility under the understanding (and strong approval from my boss) that I had theater shows I'd already contracted to and would be doing.

Dracula was the last gasp for that. It hit right when I was trying to get a medical opinion on my extreme slumps (and succeeded only in hitting depths I hadn't hit in years). The only other theater thing I remember doing after that was making an LED strip set-up for a lighting designer friend. For which I'm still hundreds of dollars in the hole.

And it might have been that. Or the holidays with entire weeks in which the shop was dark and no work hours were to be had. Or the winter season and missing a week or two myself due to being sick.

Whatever it is, I've been paycheck-to-paycheck since at least December and it sucks.

I remember making enough to pay off my debt and also pay up some long-neglected infrastructure; car repair, new glasses, new futon (and those things aren't cheap). And a couple budget musical instruments.

Now this is something like the third paycheck in a row where I've been broke when it arrived. I can't seem to catch up. My savings mysteriously vanished and I haven't even contemplated any large line-items recently.

It's like I'm back to being a starving theater artist again. Except the work is boring.