Friday, February 3, 2017

Review of Journey to Fusang, and Some Problems with Alternate History

This is cross-posted at the Late Enlightenment.

I'd had William Sanders's Journey to Fusang on my to-read list for years, and I finally got around to it. As much as I enjoyed the book, it exposes some of the problems common to the alternate history genre and even those specific to what-if-the-Mongols-invaded-Europe stories. It also made me wonder which historical branchpoints are most valued by "the academy". Each of these is covered herein.

Part I: Review of Journey to Fusang

After five centuries of European cultural domination of the world, it's difficult not to be fascinated by the now almost fantastic idea of non-Christian non-Europeans conquering parts of Europe. Of course this did happen in three corners of Europe - the Moors in Spain, the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans, and of course the Mongols. And if there were an award for depth of impression per years occupying European territory, the Mongols would win hands-down. Their advance beyond Russia lasted just a few years. And in the territory they actually held onto, modern Russia, they were there for a scant two centuries. Even in the East the dynasty they established (the Yuan) fell apart in about the same length of time, despite some useful innovations - among them, the world's first adoption of paper money, not to mention an honest attempt to change the Chinese writing system to a sensible phonetic one.

The Mongols' western high water mark was Poland and the Balkans, where they achieved several characteristically cunning and blitzkrieg-like victories before making winter camp. In the spring of 1242 they decamped just as suddenly and faded back into Central Asia. The reason typically cited for their withdrawal is the death of Ogedei Khan; in the Mongol institution of selecting a new khan, the kuriltai, you get a vote only if you're physically present at the succession talks, and the sub-Khans leading the European campaign did not want to be left out of the decision. As with most things in history, the reality is probably more multicausal and complicated. For example, Europe was littered with well fortified castles and their sieges were making for frustratingly slow going.  What's more, Mongols were not all-weather super-men, and they didn't do well in cold, wet, marshy areas, e.g. Europe.

But simplifying history for the sake of a good story (this is after all a novel, not a textbook), in Journey to Fusang, Ogedei's sickness does not lead to his death, and the spring of 1242 sees the Mongols conquer Europe from the Vistula to the North Sea and the Mediterranean. England and Ireland are spared the ravages of the grim horsemen, as there is apparently no western Khan ("khan of all the Germanies") as enterprising as Kublai (or there is, but England is protected by the same divine winds that defend Japan.) In the late 1600s when the action takes place, England and Ireland both call themselves Catholic though each has its own Pope. Milton is a gambler in London, and Shakespeare escaped to Ireland and wrote light comedy. Though, as a result of the conquest, nothing like the Renaissance happens in Europe, nor any Reformation, and there is certainly no European discovery of America. The European continent remains a cultural backwater stuck in a Malthusian trap of subsistence agriculture and ignorance, leading the protagonist at one point to make a comment about French women rearing litters of children named Pierre and Temujin. The East Coast of North America is being colonized by Moors and various other Islamic people, and the West Coast by the Chinese - the crown jewel of whose possessions is sunny Fusang and its colonial capital, a hilly metropolis by a bay. Somehow amidst all this the Aztecs not only survived but prospered, accumulating guns from Muslim traders, and they're a constant concern along the colonists' borders.

The protagonist is Finn, an Irishman, and a trickster and con-man extraordinaire, who finds himself captured by a Moorish slaving ship, which he escapes with a similarly-minded Hebrew indentured crew member. They find themselves in the great city of Dar Al Islam (New Orleans). The book does rely on incredible turns of fortune (in one moment the protagonist is in deep, the next he's on top of the world) and the plot is rarely predictable. Eventually our hero makes his way to the interior where we meet Comanches with names like Muhammad Ten-Bears. The large, dull English slave whose dumb luck brings him along for the adventure is a clear parallel to Lewis and Clarke's black slave York (the natives are amazed at his size and complexiion and, as York did, the fellow takes advantage of their fascination by fornicating with scores of their women.) Eventually the group of Islamic frontiersmen end up in Taos, where they encounter Chinese colonists for the first time. I particularly liked the description of the strange energy of Taos - I'm about as un-spiritual as they come but I find the place oddly unsettling. They also hole up in Acoma for a siege, which would be as good a place as any. In the real world, Acoma Pueblo, which is a cliff dwelling that's been continuously occupied since well before Columbus. I should point out that the breathless description of the ninja they encounter is one of the few things in the book which marks it as a work of the eighties.

Tension builds as both the Chinese and Muslims discuss nameless troubles in the north, which turns out to be a Russian Khan and his horde that crossed the North Pacific and invaded from - not the soft underbelly, but the undefended top half of North America. What results is very much a recapitulation of Mongol sieges and brutality, but in the American heartland. (Among other towns, Taos is completely destroyed.) The Russian khan's ultimate goal is the conquest of the Aztec empire from which he can invade the settled parts of the continent, which would precipitate a kind of world war. Of course through a combination of cunning and luck, our hero is able to stop the invasion, and after recovering from the injuries he sustains in doing so, he migrates to Fusang.

For me, what really sets this apart from other alternate histories was the scoundrel protagonist's cynicism, insulting descriptions and occasional misleading narration. For instance, as he and his Hebrew companion are traveling up the Mississippi to their frontier outpost (and not helping with the work at all - remember, these are escaped slaves that people are tolerating!) the manager of the expedition has finally had it with their shiftlessness:
Ibrahim had discovered Yusuf and myself standing in the shade of a cypress tree, overseeing the work and occasionally calling out useful suggestions, and had delivered a lengthy and surprisingly emotional speech in which he listed various discrepancies and points of dissatisfaction with our general performance to date. It worried me to see a man his age and weight get so worked up in that hot climate.
The Irishman abounds with politically incorrect observations of the many people he meets, although usually not without self deprecation. Even the people in whose colony he finds himself are not safe:
Arabs, on the whole, are an amazingly mendacious people; they will lie even when the truth would serve their purposes better, and show no shame even when caught at it. Among themselves this does not harm, since they never believe each other anyway; but it can be annoying for a man brought up in a scrupulously truthful country such as Ireland.
And near the end of the novel in Fusang, the protagonist and his sidekick, having made the acquaintance of a member of a shady Fusang organization, are recommended to one of the city's underground bosses, who deals with them thus:
He said, "Lu Hsu says you wish to work for us. He says," he said, rattling the letter, "that you are a pair of liars, cheats, seducers, and thieves, and cold-blooded killers if need be. He says that one of you would steal a hot stove and the other would sell it to a man dying of sunstroke. He says only a fool would trust either of you within a thousand li of his cash box, his stable, or his wife, and that even for Europeans you have set new marks in treachery, fraud, and deceit. Gentlemen," he cried warmly, "I have never seen a finer letter of reference. I am prepared to offer you immediate employment, early promotion, and full benefits."
In short, the book works as a historical thought experiment about the impact of Europe on North American cultures, the protagonist is hilarious, and it's a solid adventure novel to boot. Highly recommended.

Part II: Problems of Alternate History, and of Mongols-Conquered-Europe Stories Specifically

There are really three main problems (or assumptions) that alternate history novels have to address to succeed, and this novel is an excellent vehicle for exploring them. But it's useful to compare to three other alternate history novels, because you'll see some repeated motifs.

Book, AuthorBranchpoint and Changes
Lion's Blood, Stephen BarnesHannibal defeats Rome; North America colonized by Egypt in north and Ethiopia in south using European slaves, with Aztecs getting guns and flourishing
Conquistador, S.M. StirlingAlexander the Great does not die young; Europe and Middle East merge into millennia-long superstate, scientific progress retarded
Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley RobinsonBlack Plague kills all Europeans; Americas settled by China and Islamic world, history becomes a struggle between the two
Journey to FusangMongols conquer Europe , leaving it a backwater; Americas settled by China and Islamic world, with Aztecs getting guns and flourishing

Alternate History Problem #1: What is the point? Why would you read a book about a history that never happened? Do you just want to be shocked by strange people in familiar places (mosques in frontier-era Arkansas, and Native Americans named Muhammad Ten-Bears), or are you trying to isolate historical cause and effect (did Chinese and African colonization of North America only fail to occur because of European domination?) I couldn't shake the feeling that Sanders wanted a Mongol-like horde in the American plains just for the sake of it. Granted, a Mongol horde on the American prairie is kind of cool, but that could not have carried a whole novel. At the same time, even the shocking reversal of oppressors and slaves here or in Lion's Blood was clearly written in the service of a thought experiment. Was there something about various human cultures that predisposed one people to enslave, or be enslaved by, another? Or is this something we would've all done to each other given the chance, and it's all just random, and history really is just one damn thing after another? (These days we get very uncomfortable saying that one culture might somehow be "better" than another, but here's a fact: either culture has some impact on human flourishing, or it's meaningless background noise. There's no middle ground; we have to pick one of those, and being uncomfortable with the choice doesn't make it go away.)

Alternate History Problem #2: Is warfare really the only thing that makes a difference in history? Most alternate history is about what would have happened if some episode of mass violence had transpired differently. Is everything else we do really so meaningless? In the four novels cited here, the branchpoints for two out of four is a war, one out of four is a change in the life of someone who's famous because of war, and one is from a plague. What if the steam engine were developed earlier? What about antibiotics, or intensive agriculture, or monotheism, or electricity? (For example: why no Byzantine industrial revolution? People have asked the same question of China but it should count for something that China developed intensive agriculture, centralized state bureaucracy, literacy, paper money, and gunpowder, some of which happened after getting sacked by the Mongols.)

These questions are far from useless. Economists are constantly asking questions of how developing nations can improve themselves, which invariably become questions about why certain advances occurred certain places, and not elsewhere. You might argue that it's not the wars themselves where the future is set; that Sun Tzu was right, and the outcomes of battles are determined long before they begin, by the culture and technology of the countries that produce the armies. Case in point: a normally clear-thinking friend once asked me seriously about the possibility of Mexico having won the Mexican-American War. Once the American military of the day was fully engaged with its Mexican counterpart, there was no question of the outcome. One question at least implied by many alternate histories is the impact of culture and political situation on the advance of science. Conquistador assumes that a unified Greece-Egypt-Persia would have halted progress, where Robinson assumes it would have advanced essentially the same in the absence of Europeans, merely with name substitutions (qi for electricity for example.) (I would argue the contrary in both cases.)

And here we come to some of the problems specific to Mongols-conquering-Europe stories. It's assumed that a Mongol sack of Europe would have flattened the West and removed it from the world stage. No doubt it would have been an unpleasant time to live in Paris or Rome. But in China, a Mongol conquest is not alternate history. The town of Yamen, a coastal town two hours' driving time from the metropolis of Guangzhou, was the site of the last surrender (or suicide) of Song officials to Kublai Khan, who then established to the heavily occupied and directly administered khanate. If you haven't noticed, China did not collapse into a permanent dark age. You could argue that without the Mongol conquest, China might today be even further ahead (maybe it's time for an alternate history where the Great Wall was a little higher and kept the Mongols out, and by 2017 China has colonized the solar system.) A further puzzle is that in two novels with Europe eliminated as a serious contender for founder of global civilization (whether due to Mongols or plague), why is it that automatically China and the Arab world (both also sacked by the Mongols!) who colonize the Americas? Even in real history, there was nothing stopping the Chinese or Arabs from such voyages, and in fact the famous Chinese treasure fleet was sailing before Columbus, and less than two centuries after Kublai's conquest. It was not because of European oppression or Mongol depradations that they were brought home, but domestic Chinese politics. (Arguments for an age of discovery driven by the Islamic world are even more obscure; despite this, three of the four novels cited feature Arabs colonizing North America's Atlantic coast, with only two novels showing Chinese colonization from the Pacific.)

Finally, there seems a strange urge to describe an armed modern Aztec nation-state, flourishing unmolested by non-European colonial powers who give them guns. In both novels cited above that contain an armed modern Aztec nation-state, their colonizing neighbors came from the Islamic world. The Spanish were not famous for their tolerance of Aztecs or their culture, but it's absurd to argue that Islamic conquistadors would have been more progressive. On the other hand, I freely admit that Barnes's Aztec knights were extremely cool, almost like an alternate history answer to Niven's kzin. In Journey to Fusang, Yusuf describes Tenochtitlan thusly:
He sat down on a coil of rope. "How can I describe it to you? What's the biggest, finest city you've ever seen?"

"Tangier," I confessed. "By a great margin."

"Tanger?" He made a scornful snorting sound. "Tangier wouldn't make a minor suburb of Tenochtitlan. It's bigger than Rome or Constantinople or even Baghdad - why, there are independent kingdoms in Europe and Africa that cover less area than Tenochtitlan alone. And all of it laid out carefully with long straight streets, even canals in some parts like those of Venice, and market squares bigger than most European towns. Flowers growing everywhere, and the people looking so clean and well-fed, even the poor...and in the center, dominating the whole city from wherever you stand, that great pyramid, with its two temples on top - the blue one for Tlaloc the rain god, the red one for Huizilopochtli, he's the really nasty one - with a whole city-within-a-city of lesser temples and palaces clustered at its base. Finn, I've seen the ancient buildings of Greece and Rome and Egypt, and I'd put these people's work up against any of it.

"And then," he said, still in that quiet, almost toneless voice, "while you stand there trying to take it all in, trying to grasp the wonder and the beauty of it all, like St. John seeing the New Jerusalem - just then you glance across the street and see a priest striding along in his black cloak, face painted black, hair hanging to his knees and matted solid with years of accumulated dried blood, and the stink of rotting blood coming off him like a walking slaughterhouse - and then you remember, and you can't believe it, and yet there it is. The same people. How can it be?"

Note again: in the real world Baghdad was sacked quite badly by Hulagu Khan; while not today the center of global learning that it once was, it was hardly reduced to an irrelevant backwater.

A summary of the motifs across these novels:

Book, AuthorBlacks Enslave WhitesMuslims Colonize Eastern N.Am.China Colonizes Western N.Am.Modern Aztecs w/ GunsBack-ward Europe
Lion's BloodXXXX
Years of Rice and SaltXXX
Journey to FusangXXXXX

Alternate History Problem #3: Balancing realism with entertainment. This is fiction. It can usefully explore ideas, but ultimately it has to be carried by a narrative, and if that is lost, the medium fails. If Hannibal had won the Second Punic War, the map of Europe (or whatever it would be called) would look completely different and be populated by people who looked and spoke and worshiped completely differently from how they do today. If a branchpoint is set long ago and still faithfully followed through, it would result in a world so bewildering and unfamiliar to us that its people would be uninteresting. Conquistador's branchpoint was Alexander's surviving his fever in Babylon, but Stirling mostly used that as a way to produce a mostly-empty North America to be settled from our timeline. Of the four novels here, Lion's Blood is the worst offender, but neither is Fusang innocent. In the case of Lion's Blood, there's a fourth century B.C. branchpoint, but Christ - the same Christ - is still born 250 years later, and founds the same religion? And Mohammed more than 800 years later? Of course, a modern world without Christianity or Islam would essentially be invented out of a whole cloth - so such a degree of honesty is inadvisable, unless it's directly relevant to your thought experiment; e.g., whether evangelical monotheism would still inevitably have appeared. Sanders peripherally mentions Shakespeare and Milton but has the good form at least to make their output different.

There is also the problem that people with a different viewpoint would not use the same names for the same places (obviously) or imbue them with the same significance. By putting cities in recognizable locales (the mouth of the Great River, or the hilly city by the bay) you can cheat to some degree. Rice and Salt opens with a Central Asian horseman riding alone through an oppressively silent city of white bone-like monuments under the moonlight, and ascends a hill to inspect the most prominent. Ignorant of European history as you would expect such a person to be, he can only describe it in terms of pure sense experience, and it takes a few pages before the reader realizes he is plodding through the Acropolis. I respect Robinson for this opening, because it risks the unobservant reader's missing the symbolism, but there's a substantial reward to the reader who recognizes the landmarks. (Many writers would have succumbed to the temptation of exposition, with the rider mumbling to himself "Well you know, these structures symbolize the foundational philosophy of this continent...")

Part III: Branchpoints Favored By the Academy

I compiled some stats for the Sidewise Awards. Uchronia's overall list would be a more accurate measure of what people are writing, but this is a better approximation to what people value. Order is by number of entries in category in the novel awards.

The distribution between short- and long-form is clearly different. Possibly, people are more likely to explore new territory in shorter form. Interestingly, from the novels, the post-WWII awards all went to stories set in the Kennedy or early Johnson administration - two of which are about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which terrifyingly could easily have gone differently, and not nearly as well. Also note that the short form pieces were more likely not about war or tragedy, with 5 of 21 titles being about some form of science or technology that developed differently (as opposed to 0 out of 21 of the novels.) Notably, of the ~42 titles I went through, there was a one triple winner author (Ian MacLeod), then two each for Stephen Baxter, Harry Turtledove, Chris Roberson, and William Sanders.

Also notable - the closest any of the branchpoints was to the release of a novel was about 50 years; for short stories, 38 years. Is that because if we don't wait a generation to write our alternate history - until all the stakeholders are dead or out of power - it's mere polemic?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Why Only Exotic Gods Coming to Life in Movies?

Here's an idea for a movie: a Lakota boy is adopted and raised by Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. He is thus mostly ignorant of Christianity; and given his genetic ancestry, he is fascinated with Old World culture. He becomes an archaeologist and travels to Israel. While there, he discovers an ancient tomb...a tomb that locals fear, and one old man tries to warn him about. Though their "New Testament" describes the power of the demigod who was killed and put in the cave, this archaeologist knows better than to believe in primitive fairy tales. Until, of course, strange things start happening. The bread and fish he bought for lunch one day keeps replenishing itself, and one of the other professors who had been laid up with leprosy magically heals. Was he about to discover that this "Christ" was real, and had awoken? And even more, that the locals' god had a dark side as well?

Of course I'm deliberately being uncomfortably irreverent, even offensive. If instead of the tomb I'd used Mohammed's angel-cave, people would really be upset with me. And yet when you see a movie with a white archaeologist being chased around by an awakened Native American god, that's somehow okay...and that's exactly the point. There is a strange disconnect here. Movies are "allowed" to concretely depict the powers of pagan gods that we remember mostly as myths; that is, they can do so without being considered offensive. But movies are not allowed to depict the powers of gods that people still actually believe in.

Above: in The Mask Jim Carrey was supposed to be wearing the Mask of Loki, the Norse God of mischief, which gave him powers. Below: a major studio is unlikely to make a movie about Christ rising from the dead like this. But wait - people actually believe that he did! Shouldn't there be more support for doing such a movie then?

For the purposes of supernatural horror, people who identify as Christian are quite willing to suspend disbelief about the reality of an exotic god for the duration of a movie or book. So Christians should love a movie about a literal avenging Christ, or Jews about the modern Angel of Death, right? Imagine it: U.S. fighter planes scramble over the Red Sea, firing missiles pointlessly into the Angel's swirling mass. Lamb's blood for door-painting is at a premium on Amazon. I can't wait for 2-day shipping, we're already up to the seventh deadly plague!) But guess what? They don't love it. Even talking about it in this way may seem provocative. (An experiment: would trying to explain Buddha's supposed cobra-calming ability be offensive? Shiva's appearance from a flaming lingham? How about a movie about the search for the Mormon gold tablets or the Scientologists' alien-spirit volcano? If some are okay and some are not, why? I think the answer is fairly obvious.)

Of course there are exceptions to this strange ban on movies depicting the gods or forces people say they believe in. The American film industry made a number of such pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and more recently, Passion of the Christ - although these took pains to identify themselves as narratives created by the in-group, and all carefully kept themselves within the scriptural understandings of their likely audience. The only action movies per se made about these themes were Raiders of the Lost Ark and especially the Holy Grail. But there, it's not about Indy getting a gleam in his eye and going on a quest to use the power of the Holy Grail - no, in both cases with Biblical artifact maguffins, it's really, really bad guys who in their hubris have gone looking for them. It's also likely that setting the adventure a few decades in the past insulates it from moral discomfort. It would make people very itchy if Raiders were re-made to take place in the Middle East today, with ISIS fighters digging for the ark and grail.

The likely reason that we're allowed to put mostly-abandoned gods, but not ones worshipped contemporarily, in works of fiction - even if we don't personally believe in them, and just know that many other people do - is the same reason people get uncomfortable about the direct, concrete discussion of religious stories, even if not from a critical standpoint. Angry Christ fighting off the Navy Seals by walking out on the water where they can't get him would move the whole thing out of ritual-land and into concrete visualization, which is very uncomfortable for modern people who believe in things like laws of nature. And we have a frankly misguided sense that it's offensive to do this with anyone's continuing beliefs. But the second the last Scientologist dies - then I guess it's okay to make the L. Ron Hubbard zombie movie.

In this case, giving power to indigenous gods is not a compliment, or an endorsement of their reality. It's exactly because we clearly understand that they're silly that they can serve as entertainment. But we don't want to get led into thinking or explicitly saying that about contemporary gods.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What the Universe Would Look Like if Time Travel Were Possible: Different Regimes and Candidate Covert Travelers

If such a powerful technology as time travel possible, it would have implications for reality itself, and could change everything; or, it would make such profound changes, before the things that ended up changing ever existed, that we couldn't tell it happened. Thus, it is a potentially all-powerful force that could both be responsible for everything, and could be undetectable, and is thus a PEP, a pointless epistemological problem. And we should expect to be visited not only by humans from our own future, but aliens who have their own purposes in their interactions with us. The recent time travelers party held by Stephen Hawking was quite sparsely attended, so either there were none around, or they didn't want to reveal themselves. So we should ask the same question about time travelers that Fermi asked about aliens: where is everybody?

Above: Horst Wessel, an early member of the SA under Goebbels who was at one point kicked out of a pre-Nazi poltical party for being (get this) too radical. Goebbels is known to have been particularly impressed by the cut of Wessel's jib and had placed him in charge of many of his men in Berlin. Imagine if this ambitious fellow had risen in the ranks of the NSDAP, perhaps even assassinating Hitler to command an even darker incarnation of the Reich than the one we knew. He would be worthy of going back in time to kill. Actually, Wessel was assassinated in 1930 by a supposed group of communists although it remains unclear if the police actually found the responsible party. Are we living in a timeline which is actually better than the one Wessel would have led us down?

In fiction time travel has been imagined in certain ways. It's interesting to think of how we could explain the universe as we currently observe it in terms of those depictions, and quite fun to look for the effects of possible time travelers. (Don't worry, I'm not going to send you to a stupid listicle of pictures from the 1920s that look like someone has a cell phone.)

Time travel model #1: there is no such thing as time travel. Or, there is no way for us ever to detect it; or, it is only trivially real, but useless; or, it creates "branching timepoints" so you kill Hitler and end up in a Hitler-less universe, but your friends back in the "normal" history timeline stay in that timeline, and don't see any benefit from your action.

Time travel model #2: there is time travel and you can change things. However, we certainly aren't aware of big changes, so either they happen and Back to the Future-style, our brains change too, and we don't know (in which case you can't tell the difference between this and one of the versions of #1, and it actually is #1). Also it gets a little silly when there are time travel stories and alternate histories that presuppose this but somehow the same people end up being born, hundreds of years down the line. Stephen Barnes's Lion's Blood series has the branch point occurring in the early 4th century BCE in the Near East, and then somehow in the 7th century CE, Mohammed is still born. What, history is malleable but which sperm meet which eggs is not? I mean come on. I complain about it again in a later post about alternate history.) The One, which is a Jet Li movie that's an interesting combination of The Highlander, The Terminator and several other movies, pretty well-done despite the obviousness of these tropes, has essentially the same problem.

Article: "Psychiatric hospitals filling up with time travellers sent back to kill Donald Trump"

If history-altering time travel is possible, there's another problem. It sets up an inevitable arms race for who can go back before the other guy and cut off their moves pre-emptively (remember how Bill and Ted got out of a plot problem by "remembering" to go back in time from the future and drop a trash can on the head of the guy who was about to shoot them? I don't understand why the bad guy wouldn't have done the same thing to stop them. And Bill and Ted do something to stop him...and so on.) In fact, if history-changing time travel is possible, then (for example) if gold is your thing, piddling around with the California Gold Rush of 1849 is stupid - why limit yourself to the deposits that exist on Earth in your (current) timeline when you can influence the supernova that created the Solar System? Or the amount and distribution of various nuclei at the Big Bang? Efforts would then focus on being able to influence earlier and earlier instants in ways that produce desired outcomes, and the whole universe becomes a game of temporal oneupmanship, where everyone wants to squeeze closer to the causal high ground at the earliest possible instant.

Even if we could somehow "sense" that history had shifted, a la Marty McFly or the returning safari hunter fromBradbury's A Sound of Thunder, there's no reason to be fooling around with dinosaurs, and the universe we're looking at is likely already the final outcome of various struggles that crammed the turns of their game into a handful of Planck times after the Big Bang. (This could explain the strange stringy/foamy distribution of matter in the universe. It's from the entity who captured the first move and canceled all the later ones, and proclaimed Fiat lux! Or Fiat aurum, or whatever it was maximizing. Anyway, it's more likely light or gold than the happiness of conscious beings. Clearly the universe we're in is not optimizing for happiness in a Parfitian or Neil-DeGrasse-Tysonian or any other sense.)

Time travel model #3: there is time travel, but nothing can change anyway. Time travel and fate are both true. This is the model used by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhikers Guide series, in Twelve Monkeys, and to some degree in Terminator 3, also known as "everything has already happened, in order." Note that models #1 and 2 are agnostic on the question of whether the future is as set in stone as the past, or the more provincial question of whether certain entities in that universe (humans) can make non-predetermined choices. BUt if you think consciousness in an epiphenomenon as some people suggest the Libet button-pushing experiment does, then you believe we're "locked in" exactly like coma patients, except we're looking out through the eyes of meat robots and we're deceived into thinking we're making the robots move, when in fact we're just watching and along for the ride. Consequently, when there's a shift, all we can do is watch, as in Vonnegut's Timequake. (Of note, Vonnegut's meditations on time, evident elsewhere including Slaughterhouse Five, inevitably shade into discussion of morality and meaning.

A variant on this is the idea of temporal homeostasis - maybe you can make a few changes that persist for a while, but there's an equilibrium principle that will try to return the universe to baseline. The series 11/22/63 employs this heavily. Although not explicitly about time travel, Final Destination shows a universe trying to restore equilibrium, and Pohl's Coming of the Quantum Cats shows how material moving between timelines causes physical imbalances (spoiler: in that case, they were rectified by super-advanced humans or unseen aliens that stepped in after they saw the damage we were unknowingly doing.)

In this model, even once people know they can't change anything - i.e. they want to stop the A-bomb from being developed, they even see pictures of themselves in the declassified Manhattan Project materials (maybe that's where they got the idea! because everything already happened, in order) but they still can't help themselves. Hoping against hope they say dammit, I'm still going to try. Of course, by bizarre coincidences, it's going to happen exactly the way it already happened. (This was suggested to have happened with scientists from the future interfering with the large hadron collider, but of course it still came online.)

It's this last model that interests me the most, because what it would produce is a handful of out-of-place people throughout our history; people who know too much, who get involved in historically important events; who disappear or seem to be swallowed by time. Having some fun, I've compiled four good examples.

Jesus Salas Barraza, Pancho Villa's killer. I've written before about this event, and the person who caused it. Underappreciated outside his country, Villa was planning a run for president of Mexico at the time of his assassination. And imagine the kind and gentle government he would have established had he won! Of course, a successful time-traveling assassins would not obviously from be stopping a dictator, from the perspective of people in that time, and would have lived out their lives in prison (or in some other obscurity). For example, if he had been successful, Bruce Willis in Looper would've just seemed to be a child killer. Hence the curiosity of Barraza's dying words: "I'm not a murderer. I rid humanity of a monster..."

Above, Jesus Salas Barraza, clearly a guy from the alternate Villista dystopian future. From Escrito Sangre.

Juana Maria, a Tongva woman from San Nicolas Island off the the coast of Southern California. In 1835, a Mexican expedition forcibly evacuated everybody from the island but Juana Maria was left behind. Or...was she a time traveler who went back in time to hide among the Tongva people on San Nicolas Island? Years later, a rescue expedition was sent - actually more than one, since on the first try, they found her footprints but couldn't find her. Eventually they did find her, and brought her back to the mainland. And NOW - after improbably making it off this isolated island where she could effect the rest of history - in a matter of seven weeks she died. And here's the kicker, per Wikipedia: "Juana Maria's water basket, clothing and various artifacts, including bone needles which had been brought back from the island, were part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, but were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Her cormorant feather dress was apparently sent to the Vatican, but it appears to have been lost." It's almost as if space-time desperately wanted to erase any physical trace of her...

Thomas Conway was an Irishman who fought as an officer leading the colonial rebels in the American Revolution, but in 1778, he tried to have Washington removed as head of the Continental Army - and presumably to take the role for himself. Conway's maneuvering was reported and he ended up resigning, first going to France, from which "he was compelled to flee [to Ireland] for his life. After that Conway disappeared from history. He is supposed to have died about 1800 in poverty and exile." Cue Twilight Zone music!

Lastly, Benjamin Franklin, because I mean come on. To name a few of his inventions and accomplishments: fire companies, electricity, the Gulf Stream, paper-based goal-setting software, and (seriously) depositing interest-accumulating money for the future people of Philadelphia. Since his childhood is pretty well-documented, what may have happened is thta some British time traveler realized they bore a resemblance to him, and went back to the date when he "ran away" from his printing apprenticeship knowing that he didn't come back to see anyone who knew him for many years, throwing the real Benjamin Franklin into Boston Harbor one night. Then, he went to London for some time, gradually leaking small innovations here and there and generally having the better of his contemporaries, until coming back to the colonies and marrying. After the Seven Years War Franklin went back to London, leaving his wife to mind the house in Philadelphia. The man we remember as a patriot showed a curious early loyalty to the crown, taking the English side in the Stamp Tax controversy (as any anti-American time traveler would), but this incited Philadelphians to take up arms against his household and wife, perceiving them as in league with the British rule-makers. Franklin then changed his position and returned to Philadelphia, eventually drafting into the role of architect of the revolution and the government which followed. (One is reminded of the ending of Terminator 3, when John Connor realized his position and reluctantly announced over the radio that he was in charge.) Thus, our anti-American British time traveler tried, but failed, to steer the Americans away from revolt, only to take a softer position out of concern for the woman from the past he ended up falling in love with in the past - just as he always had...

Below: Ithink I've found him. Maybe he wanted to keep the British and American markets combined so he could insult more people.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Themes in Bradbury

Bradbury remains the only writer whose works I've read and enjoyed more than twice. It's a shame that many people encounter him only as kids; I know when I first read Fahrenheit 451 I was twelve years old, and as far as I was concerned it was a slightly odd story of a guy who set stuff on fire for a living, which ended with a scary robo-dog and a nuclear war. Two readings since then have expanded my appreciation of it. The richness that bears repeated readings in any work is found in the shadings of human experience, and these suffuse his work, like myths which constantly yield new insights in each new age. In fact a character in Fahrenheit 451 points out this very richness as one of the characteristics of true literature. As I was re-reading some of his stories in the past few months I was struck by the following themes.

1) Human beings can't help but bend the world around us into a reflection of ourselves. This is tempting, but ultimately smothering and toxic. This occurs most obviously in "Mars is Heaven" and "Here There Be Tygers", but most of the stories in the Chronicles features some aspect of people hurting or killing themselves through this comforting blanket of self-deception. I'm always struck by how the telepathic Martians who facilitate the deception seem to need to help us do this, and need us to need their deception, though I'm not quite sure what to make of it. (The Martians are surely in part a symbol of Native Americans in our history - something onto which we project our fantasies of self and other - and Bradbury even tells us it was our diseases that wiped them out - but that's not all they are.) The most prominent demonstration of the Martians' need for us can be found in "Mars is Heaven", where Martians kill the Earthmen to prevent them from piercing the veil of the dream they'd all allowed the Martians to erect around them. Still, even after the Earthmen are dead and there is no use to further deception, the Martians appear to mourn them, or at least the comforting illusions the Earthmen brought with them and that was now slipping away. The Martians just can't help but receive and amplify the fantasies and memories of the humans.

2) There is a subtle deathwish theme that runs through Bradbury's stories, expressed most nakedly in "The Blue Bottle", but also present in "The Earthmen".

3) Bradbury was able to avoid the more distasteful mid-20th century American literary themes, the badly-aged ones of decrying commercialism through chains of made-up Brandnames(tm), or baldly Freudian character explorations. As for the former, he does certainly register his frustration at 1950s America's Detoquevillean conformity (Fahrenheit 451, "There Will Come Soft Rains", "The Earthmen"). As for the latter, the excellent "The Veldt" may be the closest he comes (after all, there's a psychiatrist in the story) but many of his stories have characters with a moral and psychological simplicity that, if you pay attention, you'll notice being compared unfavorably to one or more other characters (most of his astronauts, or the country folk in "The Burning Man".)

4) It's difficult writing about his stories because Bradbury doesn't place hard little gems inside his stories - you can't point to the page and say "this is my favorite part" - but rather you slurp it down and enjoy it afterward like a warm meal on a cold day. "Kaleidoscope" and "There Will Come Soft Rains" are especially poignant examples. Interestingly I've never once heard a hard scifi geek (and I proudly count myself one) complain that Bradbury's science is unrealistic. You don't stick around long reading Bradbury if you want to know about Martian biochemistry or how his rockets work. But his writing is most certainly speculative fiction, in that Bradbury is playing with the element of setting so that he can tell a story. It is not science fiction, in that he clearly doesn't care about the real atmosphere of Mars, or if there are jungles on Venus, or anything else other than our imaginings of these things. And neither do we, when we start reading the stories he put in these places. Possibly related to this, Larry Niven once made a comment to the effect that young writers would break their hearts trying to imitate Bradbury, because his stories somehow just happen without any respect for action or structure.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reflections on the Bizarre Behavior of a Science Fiction Nerdkid

Recently I was contemplating the many ways in which I was a weird kid. Here are but two, both of them grimace-inducing as I ponder them today.

When I was in sixth grade, I was obsessed with the show V. (Partly because I was obsessed with Jane Badler but who can blame me.) As you may recall, the aliens in this show were the Visitors, reptiles who disguised their appearance from humans with fake human-looking skin. (Fortunately for the show's producers, this also had the effect of minimizing special effects and makeup budgets.) However, this "skin" could be torn off revealing the scaly hide underneath - and often was in fact torn off, inevitably to dramatic effect. My obsession with the show around age 11 was such that I actually starting telling other kids I was a Visitor. Of course, this made me every bit as popular as you might expect. One day, a helpful classmate demanded to test my claim by saying "it won't hurt if I pinch your skin then." I don't recall ever thinking I was actually a Visitor, but also recall thinking I'd be damned if I was going to be forced to admit that I wasn't. Seeing no way out, I allowed a very very painful pinch and twist of the hand which felt like it would break the skin but did not; after which I announced that I had special skin that couldn't be torn off. However, perhaps wary of additional tests, I shortly decided I was sick of playing this game (had it been weeks? months? oh boy) and one day I started telling other kids I wasn't a Visitor. When they gleefully claimed victory over my ruse, I also insisted that I had never said that, which made me even more popular.

Perhaps more disturbing in retrospect was the time at about age 13 when my own made-up science fiction universe actually confused me about reality a little bit. I had invented bad guy aliens, the Ptranians, a race of bipedal reptiloid rats, 7-8 feet tall. (Because that would be cool.) They hailed from a harsh moon of a gas giant orbiting the star Algedi. One day I found myself wondering what the Algedi system was actually like, and found myself unable to imagine that there were no Ptranians there in reality. This unpleasant experience scared me and I stopped making up aliens for a while. The reader will be pleased to know that today I can clearly imagine there are no Ptranians at Algedi, but of course the space lemmings at Epsilon Eridani are real.

Friday, August 12, 2016

There's a 1-in-3 Chance of Life on Europa

Based on the new paper reconstructing the most recent common ancestor of life on Earth - and its environment - there's a 1-in-3 chance of a similar organism living under Europa's ice right now.

We can now be much more certain that life on Earth originated in deep sea volcanoes, which makes the prospect of life in Europa's oceans much more exciting. Life had already appeared by at latest 500 million years after the formation of the planet. If we assume mediocrity (ie that by 500 million years into it, there was a 50% chance of LUCA having developed) then that gives us a 0.14% chance of life evolving per million years. Assuming that the chance of life evolving is directly proportional to the surface area of the ocean floor (rather than the volume, because it was around volcanoes), and that Europa has volcanoes, that means a 0.00854% chance of life evolving on (or in) Europa per million years. After 4.5 billion years, this gives us 1 in 3 odds of a LUCA-like organism living under that ice right now.

If we hold all else equal, but instead assume that the likelihood of life evolving is proportional to volume, then the chance of life on Europa today is essentially 100%.

Of course this holding "all else" equal is a bit of an assumption. I didn't try to account for the different chemical composition of Europa's oceans (which we don't know yet), the volcanic activity (which we also don't know yet), and reaction kinetics based on water temperature (which we also don't know, and is a real wild card since tidal heating is a big deal when you're orbiting Jupiter.)

Besides the obvious excitement about the possibility of ocean-floor life on Europa, this also means that life evolved WITHOUT sunlight, DURING the Late Heavy Bombardment. You need water with stuff in it, but not sunlight, and if space rocks keep crashing into it, that's fine. If you're covered with ice and kilometers of water, even better.

When are we getting probes there?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

A Metalhead Binge-Listens to Led Zeppelin's Entire Catalog For the First Time

Abstract: despite a life of listening to metal (not just thrash and death metal, but 1970s "iron age" metal like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple) somehow I'd avoided Led Zeppelin, other than what a normal American male my age would get through pop culture osmosis. What finally prompted me to fix this was the curious disconnect I've noticed between the frequent assertions in rock writing that Zeppelin albums had less filler than Black Sabbath, as contrasted against the modern explicit impact of Black Sabbath measured by people today walking around with T-shirts that say "LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH". There's nothing like this ongoing worship of Led Zeppelin. Consequently I set out to binge-listen their full catalog.

Methods: Over a couple weeks, each time I sat down I listened to at least one full album at a time. While I tried not to explicitly evaulate them as a metal band, this of course comes through in the type of material that moves me. I did not include bonus tracks that were only available on later releases of albums. While I did read about the reception and background of the albums, I did not do this until after I listened to them, to make my listening experience as similar to what people in 70s would have experienced as possible (they didn't have Wikipedia).

Results: from their whole catalog, I dig about a dozen of their songs, especially When the Levee Breaks. However, it's inarguable that they have a lot more filler on their formative (first 4-5) albums than Sabbath.

Conclusion: the more direct and concentrated-by-riff appeal of Sabbath may be the reason for Zeppelin's decreased prominence today. Judging by the fact that they have not become a formative influence of my adolescence, they have failed. All hail the mighty Sabbath. That said, Zeppelin was making up modern rock as they went, and they were also to some degree a victim of their success, as modern vocalists and the modern guitar solo are often taking their cues from Plant and Page.

Favorite albums: Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV, and Physical Graffiti.

LZ: Very strong songwriting and guitar work for a debut album. Favorite songs: Communication Breakdown

LZII: more mellow, down-tempo and bluesier so far than the first one. I would call this blues rock more than proto-metal. Favorite songs: none stick out

LZIII: Overall III is weaker than I and II. Less memorable, and lead guitar is unpleasantly in the background. Favorite songs: The Immigrant Song

LZIV: they remembered they were a rock band, and found their distortion pedal and faster tempos again. Favorite songs: When the Levee Breaks (my favorite of their entire catalog), Stairway (duh), Misty Mountain Hop, Black Dog

Houses of the Holy: A LOT of the slow-to-mid-tempo songs that rock just doesn't do well, with a minimum of distortion. A slightly better Led Zeppelin III. Were they bored with their formula? Feeling as if they HAD to innovate? Or just thought they can sell more records with this shift? Moments of vocal effects that make the album sound much more modern than '73. Favorite songs: No Quarter, The Ocean

Physical Graffiti: their last strong record. Again they find their distortion pedals. Favorite songs: Kashmir, In My Time of Dying, In the Light

Presence: my favorite songs are the only two I would ever listen to again. Mostly filler. Favorite songs: Achilles, Nobody's Fault But Mine

Coda: they sign off with some actual rock, but there are too many 80s-ish moments to really like this record. Favorite songs: Walter's Walk


Metal confession time: until the last few days, probably the only Led Zeppelin song I'd heard all the way through was Stairway. And I'd heard bits and pieces of 4-5 others, frequently from commercials. How did this happen? Unclear. My taste in rock began with Metallica-Slayer-Megadeth, then went back to Maiden, Diamondhead, Sabbath and Deep Purple, and stayed with continuing developments up through 2005 or so (In Flames, Meshuggah, Avenged Sevenfold, Silent Civilian). Zeppelin never appealed, in fact seemed positively thin and boring and didn't smash my face in in the way I always wanted music to do. And now that I think back to early 90s high school, it seemed like they drew different kinds of people as fans.

So, after a lifetime of metal, in my early 40s, I listened to their entire catalog in the space of a few days, and immersed myself in the mythos. Yes, that's right. I've watched Spinal Tap, and listened to bands cover their music, and known them vaguely through pop culture references, e.g. the pie chart above - I knew there was a lemon-squeezing line and remembered the song that starts with the land of the ice and snow. So sure, I have a passing knowledge, but certainly compared to my experience with Sabbath or even Deep Purple, I really know next to nothing about their catalog. So I sat down to listen to the whole thing. Binge-listening! (Lifelong Zeppelin fans are no doubt horrified by the superficial commoditizing impression that binge-consumption of beloved media invariably invokes, not to mention an uptight middle-aged professional like myself opining on their work after such an experience, anticipation of which reaction, I have to admit, pleases me greatly.)

But you can relax, because I freely admit that such an exercise is perhaps doomed to disappointment, for me. This post is kind of a reverse Chuck Klosterman piece. No matter how transcendent these albums are, at this point they obviously can't become the formative influence of my adolescence. I can't have the experience of running home from the record store and dropping a needle onto black vinyl and reading the liner notes and arguing with friends about it and imagining how much my out-of-it parents will hate it. But I can still avoid pre-contaminating my impressions, so I tried to only know about each album what you would now before and while listening to it. To maximize the experience I read about the band's history and I knew the year that each album came out, but I intentionally didn't look at the contemporary reactions to each album until after I'd listened to them, to avoid being influenced by them. I also didn't listen to later-released bonus tracks (and none of them seem to have taken the world by storm anyway). My overall reaction is that they certainly blazed some trails, but they're not consistently impressive. Without further ado, here is my detailed reaction to the Zeppelin catalog, by album.

from Ultimate Classic Rock

General Background: reading about their progression from the Yardbirds days to Zeppelin, I get some of the early bio bits from Spinal Tap. More and more when I read about drug-related deaths of musicians, I see how mundanely similar they are. Bonham had alcohol use disorder and choked on vomit, as they often do. (No talk of whether or not it twas or twasn't his own vomit.) Kurt Cobain had garden-variety opioid use disorder with some signs of personality pathology who escaped from a rehab a few days before - whaddaya know! - he completed suicide...and the list goes on. Randy Rhoads's FWI (as opposed to DWI, which is bad enough) was probably the most interesting from this era in terms of the spectacular stupidity that set it apart from the rest. I also went looking for an online version of Ars Magica Arteficii by Gerolamo Cardano, from whence comes the ZOSO symbol, but only found the Ars Magna, which is essentially 8th grade algebra, finally imported into Europe in the late Italian Renaissance from the Islamic world. A guy who's stuck on algebra, and this is the dude that inspires your magic symbol? Not really that spooky guys.

Led Zeppelin

Overall the guitar work is more complex than I would expect from a debut album but they'd been in other professional bands before. One online Sabbath vs Zep debate I saw said Zeppelin's records have "less clunkers" and on this record at least, I agree. Zeppelin maybe influenced hard rock more than Sabbath, although Sabbath more directly hit the nerve and that's what generates the obsession. Babe I'm Gonna Leave You is good. Dazed and Confused is familiar. Communication Breakdown is a classic and I'd heard the riff before. Later on Zeppelin moved away from building songs in the modular style familiar from later metal, which you can view as a positive or not. (My vote: not. I live for good riffs.) I've heard Metallica cover How Many More Times and not known where it was from. There were moments throughout the album where the drum sound reminded me of the parts of Kashmir I'd heard before. Reflecting on Plant's personal and vocal style, he's an early David Lee Roth. He can project but it's his confidence in his delivery that lets him do what he does.

Led Zeppelin II

Early in the record, more mellow, down-tempo and bluesier so far than the first one. I would call this blues rock more than proto-metal. The Lemon Song - ah, there's the line about the lemon. And that exposes the rift between hard rock and metal and why Zeppelin is more of an influence to the former: sexuality as a theme (or at least "normal", non-threatening, non-taboo sexuality. Pantera can sing This Love because it's scary, but there's always an overtone of moral judgment. Not many metal bands that use pathological sexuality claim that they do it, or approve of it.) One study showed that metal and classical fans have a personality makeup similar to each other, and different than people who like other genres of music. Classical and modern metal are in some sense more abstract, absent personalities in the performance, more often instrumental. Maybe that's what draws the different sorts of people. Hard rock (basically dead) owes more to Zeppelin than metal. Still, can you imagine Tom Araya talking about his sex life? As for the songs, Heartbreaker's intro riff is solid. Living Loving Maid is also familiar. That's more the tempo I'm looking for from a band claimed as the, or at least a major, progenitor of metal. (Yes, there are slow tempo metal bands. They're not doing the same thing mood-wise that Zep is doing in their slow songs.) Ramble On is the best of the three hobbit-themed songs they've written, partly because Robert Plant is actually saying phrases that approach poetry. The song reminds me of the best moment of Credence.

Led Zeppelin III

The Immigrant Song: there are those Vikings. Now that I hear it I may have listened to this one all the way through, but not when I was controlling the player=paying close attention. Zeppelin really did not have a good crunch (my own personal taste? that's the objective reality of where metal went.) Sabbath's Paranoid came out within a month of this and had a better crunch. I couldn't wait for Friends to be over. It kind of meanders. It sounds like a studio jam that should've been cut. Overall III is weaker than I and II. Less memorable, and lead guitar is unpleasantly in the background. Going back to read about it, it got deservingly bad reviews. Out on the Tiles has that low crashing punctuated motif, but the guitar just isn't strong enough to bring it off, and the riffs are weak. Slide guitar in Tangerine is a brave choice, but overall doesn't rescue the song (apparently about his 1960s girlfriend from Kentucky). That's the Way was worse than having a cavity filled. As much as Zeppelin anticipated hard rock, their accoustic bits and half-assed ballads frankly suck. 80s power ballads do what they're trying to do much better than the soft ones here, i.e., it pains me to say I would prefer Bon Jovi to anything, but this song pained me more than enough to say it. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp is also a different move but at least it has energy. It seems like by this album they were already getting bored with writing rock songs. Bands don't usually move into their "mannerist" periods so quickly (often characterized by ethnic overtones; Metallica's country style on Load, Sepultura's Latin percussion, and here Celtic flavor from their lair in Wales.)

Led Zeppelin IV

A dramatic improvement over its predecessor. Black Dog is another classic. This is Zeppelin's answer to War Pigs. Given the strength of the riff, the addition of major third harmony later in the song, and the driving tempo, this is arguably proto-metal. There is an interesting rhythm change during the key change in the main riff. When Rock and Roll started, I thought good, Zep is back (to playing rock) as opposed to the inchoate ballads on III. Amazing how prominent Bonham's drums are, to good effect too. Unfortunately, the record loses momentum because the Battle of Evermore is a repetitive waste of time, Middle-Earth-themed or not. And THEN Stairway, the ancestral power-ballad. Their other amorphous slow numbers can almost be forgiven. I skipped this because I already know it. I'd heard parts of Misty Mountain Hop before but didn't know it was Tolkien-inspired. The verse has that strange chromatic triplet pattern. Come to think of it, Zeppelin does anticipate this aspect of metal better than Sabbath, whose jarringness is mostly from low register and diminished fifths. Going to Califoria is annoying, because Robert Plant is annoying when he's trying to sing about sensitivity and introspection. I'd heard parts of When the Levee Breaks before, and it always reminds me of Scarecrow on Ministry's NWO. This song is in "creepy" territory, rare for Zeppelin. This is definitely my favorite song on this album, and maybe now, of Zeppelin's entire catalog.

from Did you know Zep just won a big
plagiarism suit a few weeks ago? About Stairway to Heaven
being a rip-off of Taurus, by Spirit

Houses of the Holy

As a whole, this album has its moments but Led Zeppelin IV it ain't. It has a LOT of the slow-to-mid-tempo songs that rock just doesn't do well, with a minimum of distortion. This is a slightly better Led Zeppelin III. Were they bored with their formula? Feeling as if they HAD to innovate? Or just thought they can sell more records with this shift? (If so, it worked.) There are moments of vocal effects that make the album sound much more modern than '73; despite this, by this point I'm getting sick of Robert Plant. He's not a bad singer but he's no Chris Cornell; he's also not selling his personality as much as David Lee Roth. Of course they're both influenced by him, and specializing in aspects of his performance (is it fair to compare an archaeopteryx with an eagle and an ostrich?) so in that way Zep and Plant are victims of their own success.

Onto the songs: It quite escapes me why so many people claim to like The Song Remains the Same. Until now my only contact with it was a lyrical reference in a Carcass song, and had the situation remained this way my life would have been better for it. At moments it reminds of Rush's Villa Strangiato but less imaginative. Rain Song does establish a nice "rainy mood", but I was worried that this one would go nowhere, and it kind of doesn't until the drums and strings start later in the song. The recording of Bonham's drums often sticks out and this song is no exception (might actually be the most interesting thing here.) In Over the Hills and Far Away, the verse's vocal melody is quickly recognizeable but there's really not much else to this song. Lots of heavily bent notes imparting an almost country style here (not just in this song, throughout the album). The Crunge - I will never get this 3m15s of my life back. Reminds me of Jane's Addiction, who I also don't care for. (Clearly, every time I think they sound like a later rock band, you can make an argument for influence. But this song still sucks, and so does Jane's Addiction.) The trance-inducing riff in Dancing Days is immediately recognizeable. Somehow this doesn't get old, although certain elements of the song bother me when they're outside country or Southern rock (is that slide guitar again? I didn't like it when Kirk Hammett starting doing it on the Loads either.) D'yer Mak'er is not a rock song, but it's very unique. I don't know how I'd even describe the main riff. I still like it. Where I'm critical of the incoherent, un-memorable attempts at originality elsewhere on this album, this song feels like an actual song. A darker-sounding song, No Quarter is the "When the Levee Breaks" of this album, that has a steady development and some sustained discord and unhurried but solid riffing. I like this one a lot; maybe my favorite on the album. The main riff of The Ocean is instantly recognizable. The bizarre rhythmic pattern of it keeps it interesting and the little a capella section in the middle is nice.

Physical Graffiti

Better than Houses of the Holy. At this point, every second album is solid, and the others are weak, much like Star Trek movies. But Physical Graffiti has a lot of cuts leftover from LZIII and LZIV; I was not surprised on learning this. Physical Graffiti is also the first record on the Swansong label, and the quality drops after this one. Because they're now more isolated from sales concerns? I know this is anathema to suggest in art and especially in rock, but come on, incentives matter to human beings. (There's an analaogous drop in the quality of output from scientists who win the Nobel.) In Custard Pie I'm happy to hear that they found their distortion pedal again and it feels a little more drum-driven; otherwise not blown away. In The Rover I don't mind the bent notes because again, it grooves, and the drums are driving. Apparently there's a phase effect added to the guitar but I can't hear it. In My Time of Dying is an unambiguously good song. The quiet intro is nice, and maybe I like it because the main riff reminds me of Danzig's Twist of Cain. And there's a fast section in the middle with some solid lead work. Looking at the Wiki article, a lot of similarities in the recording to another favorite of mine When the Levee Breaks. Lyrics are the usual bluesy last minute prayers to the Lord, which normally I'm partial to, but "Oh, Gabriel, let me blow your horn", I mean come on Robert.

Onto the songs - Houses of the Holy - interesting that this is here and not on the last album. The hummable melody and cleaner (but still more prominent) vocals immediately suggest a deliberately radio-friendly song. For no fault of its own, Trampled Under Foot reminds me of other songs that I can't name, that I keep expecting it to shift into. Of course it does not which gives it an uncomfortable itch. (Green Day songs have a habit of seeming familiar the first time you hear them too.) Another problem with this song: the main riff has an unfortunate Zep pattern of busy then stop (open few seconds with bass/drums) busy then stop (open few seconds...) that I find very disjointed, not in a deliberate Meshuggah way either, but rather like it can't decide whether it wants to be a rock march or groove. As for Kashmir - I've heard large parts of this one before and always liked it. See, this is a good song. This song is a rock march and knows it. The well-placed exotic scales and brass parts somehow don't seem to stick out. I had heard previously that Bonham played out in the hallway to get the right drum sound for this song, and they do sound more distant (perfect for the song), but this may be why I find myself always listening to the drums in many of their songs. You can hear the phase effect (most overt right at the end). I'd also never counted to figure out what's going on with the meter but it sounds like it's basically in 3 (unambiguously for guitar, kind of cheating on drums by making it 4+2 so they line up in multiples of 6). Reading about the composition, I'm not surprised that they took their time composing it; this is clear in the way it's so full of well-developed ideas. The keyboards at the start of In the Light had me a bit worried (a little too 70s "look we have a Moog!") but then there's that main riff that starts at 3 minutes and is outstanding. (This is the first time in the whole catalog that I wanted to go get my guitar and learn it.) I like Bron-Yr-Aur and the metal strings, but for some reason when there's an (apparently) accidentally muted note on an acoustic piece like this it really bugs me because it sounds sloppy. Maybe that's what Page was going for but for me, it mars an otherwise nice clean relaxing interlude. ("But that makes it sound more 'live'!" you object. Yes! Correct! And you're not in your mom's garage anymore! Do it over!) In Down by the Seaside, the flange and the slide guitar are too much, and the melody and echo make me think I'm listening to Dolly Parton or something. And then at 2m12s, Dolly is replaced by...a mess. ++Ungood. The ending of Ten Years Gone feels like a power ballad that never quite takes off. Unsatisfying. Night Flight starts with Plant right away which can't be a good sign. The best thing I could say for this one is "filler". Mostly written by John Paul Jones. Sorry bro. The Wanton Song is a classic busy-open-busy Zep riff but I like it. I quite like this song. I think the internal structure of the riff makes the whole phrase feel more organized. Often you'll hear rock bands picking strange chords to try to be original and think it's a phenomenon of modern rock looking for something new, but strange chord choices are found throughout Zeppelin's work (here in the chorus) so if it's done out of boredom and a desperate search for originality, well, it was already happening in the early 70s. Boogie With Stu - alright, this one doesn't sound like rock but I have to admit it's fun. But the loud echoed vocals damage the old-timey mood. By the time I get to Black Country Woman, I'm too tired of hearing about Robert Plant getting laid to pay attention. Leaving the little spoken moments in at the beginning and end of the song create some intimacy that was probably much more rare when this was released. (Think of the rattling of the snare in response to the guitar on Metallica's St. Anger; a rough edge rare for them.) Sick Again - Okay, even if this one is about Robert Plant getting laid, there's pity and shame involved. Some good lines in this one. Lyrically, maybe my favorite song in the catalog.

Presence (1976)

Really this record has only two songs here I would ever listen to again, and one of them was a cover of an old blues man. There were bonus tracks released later but I wanted the experience of the original record so I didn't listen to them until after I was done with whole project. If that kid on the right side of the album cover was 10 when it was released, he's 50 today (although the baby from the Nevermind cover still makes me feel older). Achilles Last Stand immediately takes off with a not terribly distorted but relatively heavy galloping riff. The guitar melodies between the riffs are the best part of the song. The dramatic martial snare stop-rhythm during the guitar solo is nice. The classic theme doesn't hurt but as always it seems to be Plant complaining about women, along with a reference to Atlas. This one wouldn't be so close to ruined by Plant's singing if there weren't such a prominent echo; cleaner recording would have helped. For Your Life has big open sections that disrupt the rhythm and don't work here, and the slide doesn't keep it interesting. The descending riff that makes its first appearance around 2:30 isn't bad, but this song has the modular riff-based feel of later metal without the quality in the riffs to sustain it. And, yes it's my bias toward extremely distorted MIDI guitars (think Pantera or Green Day) but I just can't take the half-assed twangy distortion of the riffs outside the solos. (The solo here isn't bad, for what it's worth.) Judging by the fact that Royal Orleans just ended and nothing caught my attention, forgettable. Nobody's Fault But Mine opens with a nice guitar and hummed vocal melody, a good strong bluesy pentatonic riff that then adds harmonica. #2 favorite on the record after Achilles. Only later did I see that it was adapted from an old Delta blues song. I would've believed it for a Zeppelin original but this origin explains its strength. Various aspects of Candy Store Rock it seem as if they are doing a half-assed Elvis impression. Reading later, they did indeed intend it as a rockabilly tribute and took an hour to write it (as Michelangelo said of the hackish and deadline-driven paintings intead of writings of Georgio Vasari, "one can tell".) It was released as a single and did not chart in the US, which is a credit to the tastes of the American rock-consuming public in 1976. Regarding Hots On For Nowhere, is this pop? What is this? What are they even trying to do? Overall a mess. Tea for One has a promising opening. Strange riff and grooving rhythm that work well together. Out of nowhere it slows down and the slow blues section is nice but the lead work at times feels crowbarred in, and the whole thing could be about three minutes shorter. Seems like the equivalent of Sabbath's Faeries Wear Boots.

Above: from Wikimedia. Meanwhile, Ozzy was at the Correspondents Dinner already in like 2002. Below: the older Robert Plant always reminded me of Sark from the original Tron. Yeah I have weird associations with people, so sue me.

In Through the Out Door

Review in a nutshell: Why couldn't Bonham have died before they recorded this? (Really.) It's not surprising at all to read that both Page and Bonham were in the depths of substance problems at this time, and to read interviews with Page justifying this album out of the side of his mouth, you don't hear much about that (typical of an addict of course). As or the record itself: that endlessly repeating slow-paced jangling guitar riff in In the Evening makes me want to die, and not in a good way. Is South Bound Suarez a Billy Joel song rescued (without reason) from the cutting room floor and covered by Zeppelin? The impending approach of the 80s is strong in this one. Not surprisingly, one of the few Zep songs not to be at least partly written by Page (i.e. Zep's McCartney) who was apparently doing more heroin at that point than Kurt Cobain on payday. God Page's "lead" is sloppy in this song. I've definitely heard Fool in Rain before and I'm shocked that it's Zeppelin. You could make an argument that a lot of these songs I don't like are just their less rock versions and show Zeppelin's range...yeah, their range of suckitude! This one is more like Paul Simon or something. As of this song I'm starting to think this record is Zeppelin's version of Rush's Hold Your Fire. As regards Hot Dog: once in Durango my wife and I had dinner at an old Western themed bar with an old-timey piano player. That was enjoyable. The best thing I can say about this song is it reminds me of that dinner in Durango. Wow, to make Carouselambra they bought a keyboard! Sounds like the song my friend wrote in junior high. Or maybe something for the credits of a 1970s Doctor Who episode (you know when they had like 200 pounds Sterling for each episode). All of My Love is the only recognizeable one on the record. The keyboard solo is maybe my favorite moment on this tumor of an album, maybe just because anything is better than Page's sloppy guitar work here. A slightly better In the Evening but Plant's vocal weakness is shining through. As for the last song, I'm Gonna Crawl, yeah to a bridge and jump off if I have to ever listen to this song again.

Above: Come to think of it, Plant looks like St. Vitus too.
But not like Thomas Sydenham, who looks a little bit
like John Paul Jones if he kept his hair long
(neuropsychiatry in-jokes, hahaha!)
Besides St. Vitus Dance is a Sabbath song.

Coda (1982): definitely has song strong moments, because they again remember they're a rock band, but there are some soft spots and "welcome to the 80s" moments too. We're Gonna Groove has some strong bits (strong, as in coordinated punchy guitar and drums) but no part or riff from this song stands out. Poor Tom is poorly organized and otherwise sounds like another of their whatever-it's-called Bryn-Mawr Welsh bits (checked: yes, recorded during their "Welsh period"). I Can't Quit You Baby is a nice bluesy piece with a lot of hyperactive soloing, which mistfit would normally piss me off but here I enjoy it (and of course it's an Otis Rush piece). Walter's Walk begins with a promising tempo and has a nice little rising tail of a riff first heard at 1m45s, and then really takes off at 3m25s. Finally! Ozone Baby again sounds very early 80s in a bad way, and while the modular more riff-oriented design of songs on this album is also heard in this song, the riffs aren't good. On the next song Darlene, clearly as a joke someone snuck an REO Speedwagon song into this playlist. Which is sad, because it opens with a pretty cool riff and has not not terrible soloing! Bonzo's Montreaux starts as an all-percussion piece, a nice surprise that I wasn't expecting; not sure what the other instruments are, and I have to hand it to Page, his early interest in electronics (for a rock guitarist) enhances this piece. Wearing and Tearing is fast, which about the best thing I can say for it, and was apparently intended to compete with punk bands. I find it a sad end that the last song on a real Zeppelin album was a (not good) attempt to compete with punk, although I like the way Bonham's drums are the last sound to fade out.

Saturday, July 9, 2016


Yes I've posted some metal Zelda before. But see the problem is THERE'S NEVER ENOUGH METAL ZELDA.

And of course the obligatory metal version (if you don't consider the first one to be.) Let it develop for a bit before it takes off:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Blue Juniata (Marion Dix Sullivan; perf. Roy Rogers)

Fleeting years have borne away The voice of Alfarata:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mad Max Is Not the Old West; Also, Why Does Everything Alway Get Worse?

In the peri-marketing articles that appeared with the release of Fury Road, there was a lot of comparison to Westerns. This comparison is never explored, probably because it's wrong, and frustratingly so. Mad Max and Westerns both feature a lone warrior with a rough sense of justice fighting the good fight against desert savages. The difference is that in Westerns, the sheriff is fighting to protect civilization because he knows that things will eventually get better. In Mad Max he keeps fighting despite knowing that things will only get worse. In Westerns, good folk set up homesteads on the frontier knowing full well that there are savages around, but the settlers can be reasonably assured that the sheriff or the cavalry will gallop to their aid from the unassailable (if remote) centers of civilization back East. In Mad Max, there's no hope; the raids tomorrow will be worse than the ones today, and for damn sure there will never, ever be any cavalry to help you. (In fact, you should assume a lot of the savages used to be the cavalry.) Yet, despite this, Max does retain something we recognize as a sense of right and wrong, which appears increasingly absurd given the futility of resisting the overwhelming tide of barbarians and madness. And that's why he's interesting. The free will to choose right instead of wrong is the only thing left to him, and he chooses right. Mad Max is much more like Dr. Rieux in The Plague than he is like any frontier lawman.*

That leads to the second part. Mad Max movies revel in how much nastier the world keeps getting each day. Mad Max movies are apocalpyse porn. Through the four movies we watch as life gets progressively more nightmarish. We go from some punks robbing people in the first one, to an irradiated Darth Vader wasting water in front of dying old people and imprisoning women for their wombs and milk. Why this dystopia fetish? As always with any fictional narrative, we can break the answer into two kinds of influences: forces internal to the logic of the narrative (what happens in the story), and forces external to the medium (that is, economic forces in the real world where the story is a product). Internally, we get the filmmakers' message that oil-based society will crash badly, and that nuclear war would have grotesque consequences. Externally, over time these movies found themselves in a market with more and better action movies and had to sell tickets. Utopias offer few opportunities for violent conflict and therefore ticket sales. And frankly, there's also a very real pornographic aspect to making the world more and more hellish that emerges in post-apocalpytic fiction generally.

Absent from the movies after the first two is any kind of collapse-of-moral-authority warning that social conservatives love to illustrate in detail: that if we let the softies and criminals take over, well then the strong men are justified taking matters into their own hands to give the baddies a dose of their own medicine.** (Maybe all social order requires a threat of violence somewhere at the core of the system, and the very real but better-socialized psychopaths currently in charge get mad at the threat from outsider psychopaths, and ache to respond in line with their true natures.) In the first movie, Max is a cop, guarding the roads and avenging his family. Certainly by Thunderdome, there is no longer a clear source of legitimate moral authority (at least with armed, loyal adherents to enforce it) for Max to defend anymore. Was there ever a legitimate authority? Possibly the greatest cruelty of the world of Mad Max has been to take away even the past by exploding the comforting myths of history. And possibly, this bothers us because we've had the same thoughts.

*Deserts tend to figure in existential and/or exotic fiction for Europeans and people/cultures of European descent - even cultures that have deserts, like the U.S. and Australia - because to European eyes, the desert is bizarre, and open, and by its nature obviously threatens our continued survival and even our sense of our own significance in the scheme of the universe. Science fiction may rely a little too heavily on this trope, although granted, Dune would not have been the same in a boreal forest. Still, I can't help but wonder at the source of the different roles that deserts play in the psyche and literature of Australians and Americans. American deserts are a little more liveable, and they have mountains and therefore rivers and occasional green spots - versus Australian deserts, which have much nastier critters, and which look like Mars with a few tufts of grass, and are about as good at growing crops. Australia doesn't celebrate its desert-crossing pioneers to the same degree as America, because mostly what the Aussie explorers got was a clap on the back from their countrymen that they made it, after accurately reporting back "Yep, it sure sucks out there." Australia also doesn't celebrate its homesteaders, because to a first approximation it doesn't have any, and can't. Consequently, American deserts became places of optimism and adventure and conquest, and Australian deserts are places devoid of meaning and best avoided.

**Have you noticed the following pattern with Mel Gibson's characters and scripts? A moral man driven to darkness by his enemies, angst-ridden, often taking vengeance on those enemies in horrifying ways only slightly less insane or evil than them. Mad Max, Lethal Weapon, Apocalypto...and what was that Roman-Middle Eastern one?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Avoiding Detection by Cloaking Earth With Lasers

A proposal discussed here. The full-on proposal is to eliminate any trace of the transit shadow, with a second less energy-intensive option of just cloaking the oxygen in the atmosphere.

This kind of idea is worth taking seriously, although a problem with this proposal seems to be that you have to know which star system is looking at you, or of course you could just point 30 MW lasers in all directions and run them continuously forever. Astronomy grad students seem to think it's a kind of game to deliberately broadcast messages to Sun-like stars. If they actually believe there could be intelligent life in that direction (which many very smart people do) then they're either stupid, or suicidal, like Native Americans building signal fires so the Europeans could find them more easily. Except with probably a much worse outcome.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Predicting the Limits on Life by Observing Stars and Galaxies

The more that our models (using only "dumb physics") are able to effectively model the universe, the less we should assume that the large scale architecture of the universe - even the "medium" scale at the level of stars - are affected by the evolution of intelligent life.

Another way of saying this is that physical simplicity apparently dominates the architecture of stars, galaxies, and superclusters, without the complexity that we see in things like genomes and nervous systems (and the complex behavior those systems allow). If we are able to differentiate something usefully called "life" from background noise, then this complexity is certainly a core feature. At the scale of the universe, with each additional non-puzzling observation we make, it seems more certain that life has not had much effect. When we see a few stars that we can't understand, like KIC 8462852 or Fomaulhaut, that might mean some living things have crawled out of their respective primordial soups for long enough to build Dyson spheres, and we should be happy. But when we see something like dark matter, that's so mysterious it requires a whole new subatomic particle, we should rejoice! Maybe THAT is where everybody is, and that's is the ultimate fate of intelligence, uploaded at the end of evolution into some kind of ether! The sky's the limit! (Until of course, we find out that dark matter is just boring, simple, basic dumb predictable stuff.)

Whether this means that intelligent life does not appear (often), does not last long enough to have an impact, or has impacts at spatially smaller levels than this (see involution), is another question.

To argue that we can't know the impact of intelligences alien and greater than our own is to argue that we shouldn't bother talking about it, because we can't tell if any one proposition about alien intelligence is more likely to be true then another. That's a classic PEP (pointless epistemological problem).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

I Totally Predicted the Current Metal Dark Age

It's difficult to declare the start or end of an age when you're living in it, but I totally did it dude. In 2011 I looked back and said, "I'm reasonably sure it's not just that I'm getting old, but it seems like we've entered another dead zone. 2009 is the start of the dark age." It's the third such interregnum since metal began as a distinct genre in the 70s.

So allow me to quote a "metal is dying" article, and specifically none other than Cradle of Filth's Dani Filth: "I think the last big year that everyone’s talked about was 2008, the last big year that people across the metal scene said that they bought a sports car or went out and did big shows." Whether there is a shift in culture that will prevent another resurgence, I have no idea - although thanks to the internet, it's pretty hard to scare people with your subculture these days, which is a big negative for a subculture that wants to seem scary, or even be separate at all.

As an aside, have you noticed the recent proliferation of articles and blog posts by grown-ups complaining that Kids Today Aren't Cool? I'm not going to bother linking to one because if you care enough, you can find one on your own. One in particular made me laugh, whining that he saw 20-somethings in a Brooklyn bar listening to Justin Bieber. First, I don't recall a shortage of clones with mass-produced taste when I was growing up in the 80s, so I'm not sure what's different here; second, these articles boil down to "Hey man, if you don't conform to the same music that I (a guy your dad's age) like, then you're not a real rock n' roll rebel!" If only these guys could hear themselves. If rock is dying, no wonder!