Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reel Robots

Who in Hollywood decreed that we have to have at least one robot blockbuster per quarter? After the fairly execrable Transformers 2: Dark of the Moon this summer, we've got Real Steel to look forward to in October.

Rocky-meets-robots with Hugh Jackman and Kate from Lost, who was just the worst. It's like if Rocky had decided to get into Battlebots instead of going to the Soviet Union.

The trailer and featurette look good. I mean, the f/x look good. But I don't really get it: the robots look good but it's not clear why we're supposed to care about them. It's hard enough to give a crap about the Autobots and Decepticons. I'm not saying that audiences don't or can't care about robots in the movies. But we tend to like our robots to be more like humans, like Wall*E, R2D2, Starbuck, and Roy Batty--alien enough to interrogate and critique humanity, and familiar enough to elicit a profound emotional response.

But robots that are just machines ("we can just fix that"), or are primarily machines, like the fighting bots in Real Steel, can't do that. It's the distinction between ED-209 and RoboCop: one's a soulless automaton, the other is a character that we can relate to and that forces us to examine the porous boundary between human and machine.

Side note: I think it's fascinating that the best Battlebots look nothing like humans. They're all low to the ground. Battlebots *would* be a more interesting film subject: the people who labor over them, obsessively tweaking each aspect, and the way that the most successful bots expose the limits of biological design (unlike the Real Steel fighters, who look like a cross between RoboCop and Iron Man), in much the same way as Hugh Herr's prosthetic mountaineering legs and feet.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Another Day, Another Necromancer

It's the season of the witch over at HBO, as vampires and witches prepare for a major showdown on True Blood. Putting aside my love of the vampirical, I've found myself drawn to this season's drama because of the witches, in part because of Fiona Shaw's amazing portrayal of a woman possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch with a battle-axe to grind re: vampires. The dead witch's plan? Possess the vampires and force them to self-immolate in the daylight, just like she did during the Inquisition. Queen Bill clutches at his pearls and fans himself: "They are necromancers!"

There's about ten (okay, four) different definitions of necromancy at work in Bon Temps right now. The witches (who start out being called "Wiccans," rather than necromancers) try and succeed in bring a bird back from the dead, albeit momentarily. (1. Death magic, bringing back animals from the dead.) They're successful because Lafayette (short-order cook, drug dealer, and clear-eyed realist) and Marnie (Wiccan leader, proprietrix of Moongoddess Emporium, and Sad Bird Lady) are both mediums (media?) and can be possessed by the spirits of the dead. (2. Summoning and communing with the spirits of dead people.) Canny vamps, like Eric and Bill, remember when a witch cast a spell on vampires to impel them to mass suicide by sunlight. (3. Controlling the dead.) And they should be worried, because Marnie-as-Antonia is able to force the vampires to do her bidding. (4. Manipulating will.)

Necromancy appears to a pretty elastic term on the show, just like it is historically. At first, I thought that the vampires were using it to define a particular power that witches had over them, since the vampires are dead. But then the witches were doing all this other stuff (even though their endgame is vampire obliteration), all called "necromancy." Gerbert of Aurillac was accused by many of necromancy, but in his case it meant anything from selling his soul to the Devil to practicing the rather vague "dark arts" to foretelling the future. And Gerard of Hereford (and Archbishop of York) was accused of necromancy by his own congregation because he was reading a book of forbidden knowledge--a Roman text on astral science and celestial augury. In the later medieval period, necromancy had a slightly more stable definition--clerical magic, practiced by those with priestly training and Latin knowledge, as a kind of inversion of Christian rites. Certainly Marnie/Antonia and her cohort chant and cast spells in Latin, as opposed to, say, the Greek of Maryann and her cult.

But with all this possession and Imperius-ing to force others--either vampires or humans--to do the bidding of another, it seems like True Blood isn't about sorcery, necromancy, witches, vampires, or even faeries, shifters, and weres anymore, it's about zombies.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Studies in Posthumanity I

I was completely riveted by Terri Gross' recent interview on Fresh Air with Hugh Herr, a double-amputee and biomechanical engineer who designs prosthetic limbs--including his own. Herr designs bionic prostheses that can sense weight and balance, and allow the wearer to walk, run, jump, climb, grab, and pivot. Not only that, but he and his lab are working on limbs that are integrated with the human nervous system.

Herr's own bionic legs are specifically designed for each function, to the point that he's actually improved on biological form. "Initially I put a climbing boot over the prosthetic foot and then I said, 'That's silly' and I threw out the shoe. I realized that the foot need not look like a human foot. To climb a vertical rock face, I really don't need a heel — so I cut off the prosthetic heel and I started optimizing the angle of the foot relative to the calf of the prosthesis. My rock climbing feet are the size of baby feet. They're very, very small and very, very short so I can get the center of my body over my feet on a vertical wall."

This seems to be a wonderfully direct contradiction--even a rebuke--to biology back to Aristotle. Later, Herr talks about how his biological body will age and decay over time, but his bionic body will only improve with every software download and lighter materials. Aristotle stated (On Generation) that natural bodies begin a process of gradual decay and dessication long before they actually die. Our humanity is defined in part by our relationship to finitude (our understanding of and our resistance to it), but our post-humanity (at least in Herr's vision) is defined by complicating, and perhaps transcending, that relationship.

File Under "Things I Wish I'd Known in Grad School"

Teh internets have spoken. A blog post over at TinyCatPants alerted me to the possibility that part of the early medieval period, specifically 614-911, never happened. Apparently, the whole ball of wax--Charlemagne, King Alfred the Great, the sack of Lindisfarne--was cooked up by Otto III and Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II).

Now, Gerbert was believed to have some pretty special powers, like being able to summon demons, foretell the future, and discover buried treasure, and he was also thought to have a swanky brazen head that whispered secrets to him, but inventing an entire three centuries? Hmm... On the other hand, I recently learned, in the course of a sustained research project, that Gerbert--diabolical communion aside--was a straight-A student in mathematics and astronomy. He probably had the chops to forge the calendar.

My question is: Why 614-911 specifically? It covers the lifetimes of Gerbert and Otto (and Otto's father and grandfather) and allowed Otto, as Holy Roman Emperor, to invent a fabulously powerful imperial predecessor. Isidore of Seville loses the last few decades of his lifetime (bummer) and Bede and Alcuin never existed at all?

But although this conspiracy theory is fantastically far-fetched, it does echo some of the wilder legends from the Middle Ages (see above: Gerbert). And forgeries--of documents and holy relics--were rampant. So maybe it all kind of fits together...

Monday, August 8, 2011

Past Perfect: King Hereafter

I haven't posted anything new for a while because I've been living in genre fiction. This world has fierce creatures and fiercer warriors; beautiful, intelligent, cunning women; seers and mystics; religious conflict between an established northern religion and a more recent transplant from the East; and a web of shifting and occult political alliances that stretch over vast geographic terrain.

No, I'm not talking about A Dance with Dragons. I'm talking about King Hereafter.

King Hereafter (by Dorothy Dunnett) is about the historical figure of Macbeth. Not that rash, greedy, murdering general from the Scottish play, but the medieval King of Alba (Scotland). Dunnett's book is based on several years of archival research in multiple languages and countries, and was intended to be a non-fiction account of the biography of Macbeth. She put her research to the service of historical fiction (of which she is the undisputed master). Macbeth is Thorfinn, the Norse-Celtic Earl of Orkney, who becomes Earl of Caithness and eventually King of Alba before [SPOILER ALERT] his defeat at the hands of his nephew, Malcolm, and Siward of York, his cousin by marriage.

This is at least the third time I've read this book and it only becomes more compelling each time I revisit it. Dunnett is an elliptical writer--something mentioned in passing will turn out to be important many pages later. The complexities of plot and characterization repay careful reading and rereading. But Dunnett's books also have in them swashbuckling adventure and bookish humor. In KH, a tense political negotiation between kings, complete with hostages, turns into an exhilarating and humiliating race run along the tops of oarshafts in a royal barge. Even better, it's clear that Dunnett completely understands the period she's depicting, so that it becomes possible for the reader to inhabit it fully.

KH is the best book I have ever read about viking culture, and the gradual Christianization of that culture. The book is set at the apex of northern influence: Canute is king of Denmark and England. Norsemen with strong ties to Norway and Sweden rule in the north of England, the north of Scotland, and eastern Ireland. Exiled Norse princes command the Varangian Guard, in Byzantium, and take up positions at their cousins' courts in Kiev. And Normandy is in the ascendant. In the midst of this is Thorfinn, half Viking and half Christian Celt, who gradually decides to forsake sailing for sowing and reaving for reaping as he tries to knit together a disparate group of cultures, ethnicities, and religions into something larger. He prefers Thor's hammer to the cross of the White Christ, but promotes and uses the Church in the interest of nation-building. The saddest element is Thorfinn's willing alienation from his Norwegian family to rule a country that doesn't yet exist and whose people don't yet trust him.

And, just in case you've forgotten: