Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh
by Franz Werfel
English translation by Geoffrey Dunlop and James Reidel
Published in 1933


In 1915, during World War I, the government of the Ottoman Empire took measures to expel its Armenian minority, which was relatively wealthy and generally Christian. Expulsion turned to eradication as entire communities of Armenians were brutally transferred, death-march style (causing the deaths of tens of thousands along the way), to horrific relocation camps (where untold thousands more perished). When the relocation orders came to the Armenian communities of Hatay, the populace revolted; the locals retreated up the coastal mountain of Musa Dagh and dug trenches. Several waves of Ottoman troops tried and failed to drive them out of their makeshift fortress. The Armenians held out for fifty-three days before they were rescued by French naval forces. (Werfel shortened the siege to forty days because he liked the religious resonance of the number.)

One of the Armenian men who defended Musa Dagh was my wife's great-great-grandfather. It's the ancestral meaning the story has for her that was the reason why she and then I read Werfel's book. (It's also why we visited the Musa Dagh region when we were in Turkey last year.) And what's more, the book is an important work of historical fiction; it is still the best-known literary work to deal with the events for which the word 'genocide' was first coined.

Make no mistake, this is a work of fiction. All of the Armenian characters are heavily fictionalized, although Werfel does delve into the heads of several non-Armenian actual historical figures such as Enver Pasha and Johannes Lepsius. Werfel shortened the length of the siege from 53 to 40 days, and if Wikipedia's figure of 18 Armenian deaths in the fighting is accurate, then Werfel substantially inflated the death toll.

But that does not diminish the struggle of the actual Armenians who defended their families on that mountain in 1915. Even if the number of deaths in actual history did not reach the novel's total, Werfel nevertheless very accurately conveyed the stakes involved. The Armenians of Musa Dagh really did face almost certain death when the expulsion orders reached them; their only options were to submit meekly to the authorities who wanted them eliminated, or to reluctantly take up their arms and fight. Knowing that Werfel made some dramatic embellishments does not negate the facts of what really happened in 1915.

As for the book, I had mixed impressions overall. It took me a long time to read -- I must admit that between the dates when I started and finished Musa Dagh, I polished off three other novels. (I don't remember if the book actually took me forty days to read, but it'd have been amusing if it had.) That said, it's very readable, especially in the book's latter half when things are moving much more quickly. (Werfel makes use of the trick of telling the reader directly that something awful is about to happen, several pages before the details are revealed; I suppose I should consider it a too-easy way of snagging the reader's attention, but it worked on me.)

The characters, for me, were a mixed bag. I never warmed to chief protagonist Gabriel Bagradian. Especially in the latter half, he felt less like a real person and more like a literary character. Of course, a literary character is exactly what he is, but he's not supposed to seem that way when I'm immersed in the story. I know I wasn't supposed to like the schoolteacher Oskanian, but I actually found him so annoying that I suspect the novel would have been improved if he'd tripped and fallen off a cliff in his very first appearance. And while I appreciate that Gabriel's wife Juliette was a complex character, I found it strange beyond belief that cosseting her in luxurious surroundings on the mountaintop while the siege was going on did not meet with more disapproval among the Armenian families who had to make do with very little.

On the other hand, Gabriel and Juliette's son Stephan was a much more compelling character for me. Not to mention the orphan girl Sato and the apothecary Krikor, both of whom were wonderfully weird and memorable despite both being rather one-dimensional characters.

It's the Orientalism that really drives home that this novel was written in the early 1930s. You feel like Werfel is constantly evaluating these Eastern peoples, both the Armenians and the Turks, with a Western eye. This is generally done unmaliciously, and Werfel had good intentions and a great deal of sympathy for the Armenians, but he was still a Western European describing the 'Eastern' mentality, and the results are going to sit uneasily with a lot of modern-day readers.

Also note that Gabriel Bagradian is an Armenian who lived in France for most of his life and received a French education, and he is the source of the drive and initiative that gets these Armenians out of their homes and up the mountain. One gets the sense that without this Westernized man providing the oomph, the grit and the gumption, the peasants of Musa Dagh would have placidly gone off to their deaths like sheep. But in real life, the Musa Dagh Armenians pulled off their fifty-three (not forty) day resistance without Gabriel Bagradian, who was a fictional character invented years later. In Werfel's defense, Gabriel was probably invented to give his Western European audience, who didn't know an Armenian from an Assyrian, a protagonist they could easily identify with. But the point still stands.

One thing I can say about the depictions of the 'Oriental' characterization is that it affects the Armenians and the Turks equally. What's more, despite a plot which revolves around evil actions instigated by Turks, Werfel is very careful to show that his Turks are not uniformly evil. Occasionally we hear of Turkish peasants cursing the government deportation orders that forcibly remove their Armenian neighbors from their communities. And for every passage that portrays Turks as exotic foreign 'Others', there is one in which Armenians are portrayed in much the same way. My own feeling is that this is not an inherently anti-Turkish book.

Despite its slow pace and the old-fashioned nature of much of its characterization, I'm happy I read it. And I am reminded that I need to learn more about the complex events surrounding the genocide, which I know took on many forms and lasted over a period of many years. It's still a controversial political issue today, and my reaction to a controversial historical issue is to try to really sink my teeth into it, to try to get to terms with it. This book is a start but is not the end.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1925

I admit it. I never read this in high school. Clearly I missed out on a key piece of cultural literacy.

I also admit this: A key reason why I finally read it this month was because of the release of Baz Luhrmann film (more on which in a moment). After the 'The Great Gatsby book club' episode of The Colbert Report (which, predictably, never got around to discussing the book), I gave in and bought it for my Kindle.

Now, finally, I understand. This, more than any other source, is where Americans get their image of what 1920s flappers-and-speakeasies America was like. Only now have I absorbed the same bit of cultural knowledge that every one of the creative movers and shakers of American culture absorbed in their school days. I'm sure there were dozens of Gatsby references on The Simpsons that went right over my head when I saw them.

As for the novel itself, I found it breezy and very easy to read. A while back I read a bunch of O. Henry short stories from the New York of 1890-1910. They were quick and punchy, despite being full of cultural references that few born after 1900 would understand, and I was entertained. Reading The Great Gatsby was like revisiting the same world, 25 years later.

And it struck me that, although it would not be difficult for an adaptation to set exactly the same story in contemporary times, there wouldn't be any point. Yes, there's a story and characters and all, but I felt the point of the story was 1920s New York. To me, The Great Gatsby is historical fiction, which just happened to be written in the same period it was set.

Anyway, as my reading of the novel drew to a close I saw the Baz Luhrmann movie. My expectations were very low indeed. I was half-expecting something like Moulin Rouge which happened to be vaguely based on Gatsby. (I actually liked Moulin Rouge quite a lot back when it first came out, but I suspect it would not age well if I were to watch it again today.)

It was better than I expected. That's not terribly high praise, but the movie does at least try to be a halfway-decent adaptation. It falls flat on its fact at times, and it's downright laughter-provoking when Leonardo DiCaprio turns to the camera, introduces himself as Gatsby, and smiles as the Gershwin swells and the fireworks go off. There's also the unfortunate fact that in some scenes Tobey Maguire's hairstyle and outfit make him look like Pee-wee Herman.

When given the chance I tend to geek out and start analyzing the decisions the creative class made in adapting books for screen -- I mean, just look at my posts on Game of Thrones, in which I could be far more unreadably obsessive if I let myself.

With that said, the biggest plot difference between the book and Luhrmann's movie was that they dropped the romance between Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker. As this stripped Movie Nick of any overt sexuality, it probably made some viewers assume that Nick was uninterested in women and instead pined only for Gatsby. (Some say that was hinted at in the novel, but I missed it.)

Otherwise, the movie probably could have been better if it had strayed a little further from the book. Tobey Maguire's narration, most of which is drawn directly from the novel, could have been cut considerably -- I counted one scene where the narration blatantly described something everyone could see happening on-screen anyway, and I tend to notice that kind of stuff much less than other people, so there were probably several other bits where the narration was unnecessary.

But in the end it doesn't matter, because the definitive screen adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel isn't Luhrmann's movie but rather the NES-style video game.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Your Mom Is a Monkey

Today we have been wonderfully reminded that:




If the latest XKCD cartoon doesn't blow your mind, here's another fun science fact.

We all know that monkeys are quite a diverse group of critters, but you may not realize that what we humans rather arbitrarily choose to call 'monkeys' are actually two distinct groups of animals. Old World monkeys are the monkeys native to Africa and Asia. New World monkeys are native to the Western Hemisphere.

The two groups of primates are only very distantly related to each other.

The unpalatable truth for human beings is that Old World monkeys are closer to us (and chimpanzees, gorillas, and so on) than they are to New World monkeys. A macaque is more closely related to your first-grade teacher than he is to a howler monkey. So the only reason human beings aren't monkeys, scientifically speaking, is an arbitrary naming convention: we're not monkeys because we're not called monkeys.

So that religious nut who insists that if you take science at its word, we're all basically monkeys? He's right. But I'm sure we'll all agree that there are human beings in this world whom we would find it more disagreeable to count as family than the more agreeable sort of monkeys.

(Incidentally, if you really want your mind blown, you could technically say the same for fish. A trout is more closely related to your uncle Frank than it is to a shark. I'll be sure to mention that in my explosive upcoming pamphlet, On the Illogical Arbitrariness of Zoological Nomenclature.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Game of Thrones and a Philosophical Question about Fiction

 Now that I've seen the 4th, 5th and 6th episodes of season 3 of Game of Thrones, I can say that this season is good enough that my opinion of the second season has substantially diminished by comparison.

When I watched the second season last year, I found the first few episodes to often be interminable and oddly paced; it was enough to make me fidget restlessly a bit (which never happened while watching the first season). By contrast, the first few episodes of the current season have been expertly edited and strongly held my interest, even when relatively little was happening plot-wise.

I'm sure some people have complained about the sheer number of scenes that consist entirely of a pair of characters chatting, rather than having the show give us some action instead. Not me. I love the way the show is developing characters in these talky scenes.

One complaint I had about the first two seasons, which I concluded was probably unsolvable, was the fact that the budget had some very conspicuous limitations. I felt frustrated that the show couldn't give us a proper King's Landing riot, or show us thousands of Dothraki warriors, or make it seem that when Stannis Baratheon tried to take King's Landing, he had more than a couple dozen soldiers who got killed on-screen, came back to life off-screen, then got killed again. But I felt it was unavoidable. It's a TV show, you've got a TV budget, so what can you do?

And then, in season 3, the show gives us the sacking of Astapor.




Yes. There. That. It may not be a big-budget Hollywood level of spectacle, but this does a far better job capturing a sense of epic scale than every scene in the show's first two seasons combined. Hopefully this is a sign that the show has finally figured out how to effectively make the most of a limited budget, and not that the show just blew half the money allocated for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th seasons on one scene.

Now, let's move on to my main topic.  After watching Episode 6, I have an important philosophical question about the nature of fictional universes.

George R. R. Martin has generated a large and loyal fanbase who swap speculations about the unanswered questions of Martin's world on websites such as Westeros.org and Tower of the Hand. io9's got a user-friendly introduction to the more popular fan theories. (And yes, these people tend to be smarter and more erudite than Zach Galifianakis on SNL.)

When fans debate the unsolved mysteries of Westeros and speculate on what's coming in the final two (three?) books, they generally ignore the TV series. It's not because they look down on TV as a lower, less literate form of entertainment; rather, it's because the differences between the book universe and the TV universe are significant enough that letting discussion of the two contaminate each other would hopelessly muddle things. (For instance, Ser Loras is the heir to Highgarden in the TV show, but not in the books.) These are two separate fictional universes; they are similar but different.

That said, the TV show is not merely some bit of exceptionally popular fanfic; it is produced under George R. R. Martin's guiding eye. With that in mind...

Back when I wrote about A Dance with Dragons, I said:

I must point out that it's never been shown that Melisandre has the power to reanimate the dead -- everyone just assumes she can, since Thoros of Myr can and he's also a Red Priest.

Well, Episode 6 of the new season gives us something that never happens in the books: an actual meeting between Melisandre and Thoros of Myr.

And what do you know, Melisandre seems utterly astonished at Thoros' ability to bring back the dead. To be exact, it's not quite clear if she's amazed that Thoros can revive dead people at all, or just that he can revive the same person again and again and again. Either way, though, it's a data point that I don't believe shows up in the first five books at all.

Just minutes later, we get a much less subtle piece of information, when Arya and Melisandre interact. Melisandre to Arya Stark: 'We'll meet again'. Or, to transpose that statement to the book universe, 'We'll meet for the first time'. Since in the five published books those two characters have never come within a hundred miles of each other.

So here's my philosophical question, sparked by a scene that may well have been written in a giggling fit of trollery meant only to send fans into a tizzy. If I am to speculate about plot developments in upcoming Song of Ice and Fire books, can I legitimately use these two scenes as a source? Have these TV-universe scenes told us something about the book-universe?

Thus ends my question about philosophy.

A few other thoughts:


  • I must admit that people who find the show problematic about race have a point. It's only in Season 3 when we meet the show's first nonwhite characters who also appear to be trustworthy, decent people. And I hope it occurs to the writers that the series now prominently features a massive army of anonymous brown-skinned foot soldiers led by a blonde white lady. I mean, there's nothing inherently racist here, but you need to be mindful of the tropes you're slinging about.
  • I hope the Theon Greyjoy scenes continue to show us more psychological torture, not just the really-difficult-to-watch finger-slicing torture of Episode 6. This storyline could be an extremely powerful bit of ghastly storytelling if done well, and I've been (mostly) happy with the way it's been presented so far.
  • Speaking of horror, so far I'm a fan of the horrific details the show adds that weren't in the books (but don't contradict the books), such as Varys keeping the sorcerer who castrated him confined in a box, and Selyse Florent's morbid shrine to her stillborn sons.
  • This is as much about the books than the TV show, but after pondering the fact that Hodor is an exceptionally unrealistic portrayal of a mentally disabled individual, I realized that Westeros doesn't have any modern mental health professionals available to render a proper diagnosis. So I've decided that Hodor most likely doesn't have any cognitive deficiency. Rather, he has a glitch in the language center of his brain that prevents him from producing speech correctly. Living in Westeros as he does, the help he needed was never available, so he lacks even the most basic rudiments of a formal education. As he himself would point out, 'Hodor'. 
  • I know that billing prominence is determined by some mysterious Hollywood algorithm that I could never hope to understand, but I'm beginning to feel that the fact that Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) still isn't in the opening credits is kind of insulting to her.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

βehemoth

βehemoth
by Peter Watts
Published in 2004
Published by Tor

Five years have passed since the events of Maelstrom. The βehemoth life-form -- yes, it's spelled with a beta -- has ravaged North America, causing a general collapse of government and infrastructure. The rest of the world is desperately hoping βehemoth can be contained, and reflexively lobs missiles at any attempt to leave the troubled continent. The North American corporate elite has retreated to Atlantis, a habitat on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, to wait out the end times. They have been joined by the surviving Rifters, cybernetically-enhanced transhumans built for working on the ocean floor for whom the Rifters trilogy is named. The rifters hate the corporate types, or 'corpses'. The corpses hate the rifters. They've already tried to wipe each other out once, and each side still has an impressive array of armaments left over.

But both sides would also like to stop βehemoth, which everyone expects will eventually chew its way across the entire planet and wipe out all life. Our designated hero is Lenie Clarke, the rifter who spent much of Maelstrom spreading βehemoth willy-nilly across the American and Canadian West. To be fair, she is on much more stable mental and emotional ground now that we've reached the final volume, and does occasionally show a flicker of remorse for her past actions.

Other characters include Ken Lubin, a rifter trained as an assassin, who makes your typical Hollywood action movie hero look like a cowardly weakling; Patricia Rowan, spokesperson for the corpses and former high-level mover and shaker; and Achilles Desjardins. Desjardins was one of the people trained to make the tough 'kill ten people to save a thousand' decisions. His brain chemistry had been tampered with by his superiors to give him an artificially tweaked conscience. Then, at the end of Maelstrom, it turned out that a colleague with strong political activist leanings had infected him with a virus that stripped him of all conscience, natural and artificial, so that he'd be able to act on his own moral sense without any interference. That turned out to be a great idea. (Tone doesn't always carry in blog writing. Was that sentence supposed to be sarcastic? Read the book and find out!)

Let's revisit what I said about the previous books in the series. This is from my blog post on Starfish:

This is not happy, optimistic science fiction. This is horror. There are honest-to-God sea monsters down there. Not to mention the psychological tension and continual sense of unease that pervades the book. You don't read Peter Watts for a happy fun time.

And this is on Maelstrom:

So, let's recap. The protagonist is an insane woman spreading carnage and destruction throughout western North America as she tramps off on a perverse quest that has no rational basis, who does not care that her actions cause numerous innocent deaths. The antagonist is the person who is in charge of saving the world. And the Internet is where bizarre inhuman monsters live.

And, the hell with it, here's what I wrote about Peter Watts' Blindsight last yearBlindsight was a novel Watts wrote later on, not set in the Rifters universe:

Blindsight has a 'love and cuddliness' quotient of zero. There is no happiness to be found in these pages. No hope, and no optimism, and the only positive emotion is a purely intellectual spirit of discovery, unless you also count the sizable portion of black humor. Depending on your own mindset and background, you might find there are no sympathetic characters at all.

You may be seeing a pattern here. βehemoth is one of the most unpleasant, squirm-inducing works of fiction I've ever read. (If depictions of sexual violence particularly bother you, you might be better off skipping the Rifters trilogy altogether, or at least stopping after Starfish.)

It is also profoundly depressing, the story of a human race which seems to be on its absolutely last legs, and when the first indications appear of a slim hope of survival for the world, it comes as a genuine surprise. It didn't help that Watts set large swathes of the second half of the novel in a βehemoth-ravaged post-apocalyptic eastern Maine, not far from where I grew up. And very, very few of the named characters are still living by the time the novel reaches its conclusion. (That said, with one important character, whether she survives or not is left ambiguous, and it's very frustrating because I got the impression Watts thought her fate was much more clear than it actually was.)

All that said, the Rifters trilogy is fascinating. It's a look at a hypothetical future where humans have really screwed things up on Earth, to the point where in the best of times a large portion of GDP is spent cleaning up our messes and repairing our self-inflicted wounds. In a weird way it's optimistic, as you consider that there's a good likelihood that not all of the bad stuff Watts predicts will come to pass.

I'm happy I read the Rifters books, but now I feel like I need to read some light frippery to cleanse my psyche.